What Do White Folk Fear?

Consider this description of public schools in the U.S.:

[P]ublic schools … [are] a “dragon … devouring the hope of the country as well as religion.” Secular public education … [is filled with] “Socialism, Red Republicanism, Universalism, Infidelity, Deism, Atheism, and Pantheism—anything, everything, except religion and patriotism.”

Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, Susan Jacoby, (pp. 257-258)

Some of this language is archaic, but the attack on public schools here is little different than the current climate in the U.S. where Republicans in several states are taking aim at Critical Race Theory (CRT) and the 1619 Project, as Sarah Schwartz reports:

In total, lawmakers in at least 15 states have introduced bills that seek to restrict how teachers can discuss racism, sexism, and other social issues.

The legislation, all introduced by Republican lawmakers, uses similar language as an executive order former President Donald Trump put in place to ban diversity training for federal workers. The order has since been rescinded by President Joe Biden.

Supporters of these laws say they’re designed to get schools to stop teaching critical race theory, an academic framework that examines how racism has shaped the U.S. legal system. The Idaho legislation specifically mentions critical race theory by name. Lawmakers claim that teachers have adopted its tenets, and are teaching about race, gender, and identity in ways that sow division among students.

Four States Have Placed Legal Limits on How Teachers Can Discuss Race. More May Follow

The current conservative attack on confronting racism in the U.S. is little different than the opening condemnation of public schools, which comes from John Hughes, Catholic bishop in New York in the mid-1800s. Hughes was known as the “‘father of Catholic education,'” Susan Jacoby adds, and if we dig deep enough, this attack on public schools had little basis in facts but was a market response to the creeping threat of public schools to Catholic education.

For well over 150 years, then, conservatives in the U.S. have been launching false claims that public schooling is liberal indoctrination, home to socialism, communism, and anti-religious bigotry. The recent attacks on CRT and the 1619 Project are nothing new, except now public schools are accused of being anti-white (despite about 80% of public school teachers being white).

While simplistic, provocative messaging is effective because it triggers an emotional response, the truth about K-12 public education in the U.S. is that it has always been and is now extremely conservative.

I make this claim in several important contexts: I have been an educator for 37 years (18 years as a public school teacher and another 19 years as a teacher educator at a private university, both in South Carolina), and my scholarly background is rooted in the history of public education.

But here is the most important element of my background; I am a critical educator. Critical pedagogy and CRT (among many other critical lenses) do inform my teaching.

Until the Trump-inspired attack on CRT, however, almost no one outside of graduate programs in the U.S. had even heard of CRT, much less were implementing it in any way in K-12 schools.

Certainly, in recent years concurrent with the increased media and public awareness of police killing Black Americans at a disproportionate rate—and with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement—K-12 and higher education has begun to adopt programs and teaching that address diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The rabid assault on CRT is mostly a solution in search of a problem; however, many schools have adopted, for example, concepts such as culturally relevant teaching (the work of Gloria Ladson-Billings) and have sought ways to diversity the field of teaching and the curriculum.

All of this is also occurring as the U.S. becomes more racially diverse—less white—and as public schools have become majority-minority populations (more Black and brown than white students).

So we have a problem. Again, CRT essentially doesn’t exist in K-12 education, and the 1619 Project is not an adopted curriculum, although some teachers (probably very few) likely have used the materials as a resource for teaching history.

That means something else is behind these efforts to control what is taught in schools—just as the attack by a Catholic bishop in the 1800s was more about turf than any real moral failure (or creeping socialism) in public schools.

What is behind the current attack on public schools addressing racism? In other words, what do white folk fear?

As I recently wrote, the attacks on CRT and the 1619 Project are grounded in white people (notably those with the most power and wealth) fearing a loss of the white privilege they claim doesn’t exist (in the same way they claim the U.S. isn’t a racist country):

White privilege is a system of advantage that benefits all white people (or to be more clear, all people who are perceived of as white).

That racial privilege, however, is no guarantee of success or shield of protection for some individual people who are white. White people fail, white people suffer inequity and disadvantages (such as poverty), and white people in some individual cases are substantially worse off than individual Black people.

Racism is a system of power and race that disadvantages all Black people in the U.S. (or to be more clear, all people who are perceived of as Black).

Racism is not a universal barrier to success or happiness or achievement, but it is a pervasive burden that tints every aspect of living for any Black person.

Black people are typically more starkly aware of racism (nearly moment by moment) than white people are of white privilege; white privilege works in an invisible way for white people while racism is a blunt object for Black people. …

To be blunt, reaching a state of equity and equality in the U.S. would be a material change in the lives of white people. Change is terrifying to those who are born into a state of advantage.

Equity and meritocracy realized, then, in the U.S. is a threat to white privilege.

A Case for Critical Race Theory, and More

On Busted Pencil with Tim Slekar this week, we confronted that fear by noting that the conservative attack on teaching about race and racism is an effort to avoid facing the reality than many wealthy and powerful white people in the U.S. in fact did not earn that power and wealth by their superior effort and character; they may not even deserve that power and wealth.

White people in power are afraid of other people recognizing that the U.S. is not a meritocracy, and that if we work toward true equity and meritocracy, many of the elite will no longer be among the elite.

The game is rigged in the U.S. in the favor of white and male Americans, resulting in this reality:

New Study Confirms That American Workers Are Getting Ripped Off

The rich (mostly white) is getting richer while everyone else (increasingly Black and brown) is being cheated by the rich.

Much of this tension has been increased during Covid because the shut downs highlighted just which workers in the U.S. are essential—the least well paid (such as service workers) and those living in the most vulnerable conditions (hourly laborers without guaranteed insurance or retirement).

If all the service workers in the U.S. did not go to work tomorrow, the country would shut down; if all the CEOs stayed home, no one would notice.

White people are afraid of losing their unfair advantage of simply being white, and that fear is driven by a changing world, a changing country.

Attacks by Republicans on CRT and the 1619 Project are crass fear-mongering and a distraction, driven by white fear.

CRT and the 1619 Project are not any significant part of K-12 schooling, and white students are not being taught they are inherently evil because they are white.

White folk perpetuating these lies are doing so because they are afraid; they are afraid of what they see in any mirror they face.

Chicken Little Journalism Fails Education (Again and Again): Up Next, the Science of Science?

Often education journalism is disturbing in its “deja vu all over again“: Why Other Countries Keep Outperforming Us in Education (and How to Catch Up).

Criticizing U.S. public education through international comparisons is a long-standing tradition in the U.S. media, reaching back at least into the mid-twentieth century.

This is one of many crisis approaches to covering education—Chicken Little journalism—that makes false and misleading claims about the quality of U.S. education (always framed as a failure) and that because of the low status of the U.S. in international comparisons of education, the country is doomed, economically and politically.

Oddly enough, as international rankings of education have fluctuated over 70-plus years, some countries have risen and fallen in economic and political status (even inversely proportional to their education ranking) while the U.S. has remained in most ways the or one of the most dominant countries—even as we perpetually wallow in educational mediocrity.

Yet, this isn’t even remotely surprising as Gerald Bracey (and many others) detailed repeatedly that international comparisons of educational quality are essentially hokum—the research is often flawed (apples to oranges comparisons) and the conclusions drawn are based on false assumptions (that education quality directly causes economic quality).

Media coverage, however, will not (cannot?) reach for a different playbook; U.S. public education is always in crisis and the sky is falling because schools (and teachers) are failing.

Next up? I am betting on the “science of science.”

Why? You guessed it: The Latest Science Scores Are Out. The News Isn’t Good for Schools. As Sarah D. Sparks reports:

Fewer than 1 in 4 high school seniors and a little more than a third of 4th and 8th graders performed proficiently in science in 2019, according to national test results out this week.

The results are the latest from the National Assessment of Educational Progress in science. Since the assessment, known as “the nation’s report card,” was last given in science in 2015, 4th graders’ performance has declined overall, while average scores have been flat for students in grades 8 and 12.

“The 4th grade scores were concerning,” said Peggy Carr, the associate commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers NAEP. “Whether we’re looking at the average scores or the performance by percentiles, it is clear that many students were struggling with science.”

The Latest Science Scores Are Out. The News Isn’t Good for Schools

And it seems low tests scores mean that schools once again are failing to teach those all-important standards:

Carr said the test generally aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards, on which 40 states and the District of Columbia have based their own science teaching standards. Georgia, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire are developing new science assessments under a federal pilot program.

But it is even worse than we thought: “These widening gaps between the highest- and lowest-performing students, particularly in grade 4, mirror similar trends seen in national and global reading, math, and social studies assessments.”

Yep, U.S. students suck across all the core disciplines compared to the rest of the world!

And what makes this really upsetting, it seems, is we know how to teach science (you know, the “science of science”) because there is research: Effective Science Learning Means Observing and Explaining. There’s a Curriculum for That. Not only is there research, but also there are other countries doing it better and there are, again, those standards:

Organizing instruction around phenomena is a key feature of many reforms aimed at meeting the Next Generation Science Standards, an ambitious set of standards adopted or adapted by 44 states in 2013. Phenomena are also an organizing feature of instructional reforms in countries outside the United States, like high-performing Finland. But what is phenomenon-based learning, and what evidence is there that it works?…

Our study found that students exposed to the phenomenon-based curriculum learned more based on a test aligned with the Next Generation standards than did students using the textbook. Importantly, the results were similar across students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

William R. Penuel

Up next, of course, is the media trying to understand why science scores are so abysmal (like reading and math), assigning blame (schools, teachers, teacher education), and proposing Education Reform. What should we expect?

Well, since fourth-grade scores are in the dumpster, we need high-stakes science testing of all third-grade students and to impose grade retention on all those students who do not show proficiency in that pivotal third-grade year.

We also should start universal screening of 4K students for basic science knowledge (or maybe use “science” to screen fetuses in utero).

Simultaneously, states must adopt legislation mandating that all science curricula are based on research, the “science of science.”

Of course, teachers need to be retrained in the “science of science” because, you know, all teacher education programs have failed to teach the “science of science” [insert NCTQ report not yet released].

And while we are at it, are we sure Next Generation Science Standards are cutting it? Maybe we need Post-Next Generation Science Standards just to be safe?

Finally, we must give all this a ride, wait 6-7 or even 10 years, and then start the whole process over again.

The magical thing about Chicken Little journalism is that since the sky never falls, we can always point to the heavens and shout, “The sky is falling!”

A Case for Critical Race Theory, and More

White privilege is a system of advantage that benefits all white people (or to be more clear, all people who are perceived of as white).

That racial privilege, however, is no guarantee of success or shield of protection for some individual people who are white. White people fail, white people suffer inequity and disadvantages (such as poverty), and white people in some individual cases are substantially worse off than individual Black people.

Racism is a system of power and race that disadvantages all Black people in the U.S. (or to be more clear, all people who are perceived of as Black).

Racism is not a universal barrier to success or happiness or achievement, but it is a pervasive burden that tints every aspect of living for any Black person.

Black people are typically more starkly aware of racism (nearly moment by moment) than white people are of white privilege; white privilege works in an invisible way for white people while racism is a blunt object for Black people.

Race, however, is not biological; race is a social construction that has very real consequences because of the systems of white privilege and racism.

Conservative white men with power, political power, have launched a campaign against their own distorted and purposefully misleading characterization of critical race theory (CRT), a narrow and complicated legal and academic term and concept.

First, CRT is not practiced or implemented in the vast majority of K-12 schools, and is rare in higher education. I am speaking as someone who has taught about 20 years each in K-12 and higher education while being a critical educator.

Critical educators are rare, and at best, we are tolerated; but being a critical educator has professional negative consequences because being “critical” is a commitment to challenging systemic forces.

As the attack on CRT shows, people take personal and individual offense when systems are challenged.

Even though white people in the U.S. on average earn more and hold disproportionate positions of power than Black people, white people perceive anti-racism efforts (which are designed to dismantle white privilege) as an attack; white people perceive a creeping loss of their privilege even as they deny that privilege exists.

To be blunt, reaching a state of equity and equality in the U.S. would be a material change in the lives of white people. Change is terrifying to those who are born into a state of advantage.

Equity and meritocracy realized, then, in the U.S. is a threat to white privilege.

Anti-racism efforts, which include concepts such as CRT, are not some sort of reverse racism, not a blanket condemnation of white people.

Again, white privilege and racism are systemic, as CRT argues, built into the fabric of most if not all institutions in the U.S. including policing and the judicial system (which CRT specifically addresses). But white privilege and racism are also built into formal education and, as the 1619 Project proposes, into the very core of capitalism and the U.S. economic system.

Anti-racism efforts, including those found in K-12 and higher education, ask educators and students to consider how racism happened (historically) and to examine critically how white privilege and racism remain in our contemporary daily lives in the U.S.

The backlash against CRT has had some high-profile consequences, including Nikole Hannah-Jones being denied tenure at the University of North Carolina through a process that is overtly partisan politics—the same conservatives decrying CRT punishing the most prominent face of the 1619 Project, which sits at the center of this storm.

That politically partisan denial of tenure occurred around the birthday of Malcolm X, who I think serves an important point here.

Malcolm X was considered during his life a radical, in today’s language “critical,” and despite his careful and powerful rhetoric when positioned in the mainstream media of his day, he was demonized as the exact embodiment of racial threat that white Americans were openly embracing in the 1960s.

To understand racism in the U.S., consider this from Malcolm X: “History proves that the white man is a devil.”

For knee-jerk conservatives, this is proof of Malcolm X himself being racist.

But read in its full and clear language, the comment is not racist since it is grounded in “history proves.” Malcolm X is drawing a valid generalization about white people based on Black people living in the reality of active individual and systemic racism in the U.S.—from slavery to Jim Crow, from separate bathrooms and water fountains to segregated schools, from lynchings and the rise of the KKK to interracial marriage being illegal until the mid-1960s.

Racism is a set of race-based generalizations based on stereotypes, not evidence. I won’t list them here, but white racism toward Black people includes the very ugliest of claims about Black people that have no basis in fact, no historical, biological, or sociological evidence.

Part of the backlash against CRT is simply denial and racial discomfort, but that backlash is also a profound misconception about the fact of racism. Conservatives are apt to claim that the U.S. is not a racist country, and that any racism in the U.S. is merely a thing of the past.

Let me offer here two examples of why CRT and anti-racism efforts are valid, and must be central to formal education.

First, CRT argues that our current systems have racism baked into them because they were designed and created when, in fact, being virulently racist was not only socially and politically acceptable, but often a social and political advantage.

For example, Ben Tillman had a long successful political career in South Carolina (1890-1918), as governor and U.S. Senator. Tillman is something of an extreme example, but he was one of may white men who were racist and creating the laws that govern this county.

Detailed at Historic Columbia are some of the key elements of Tillman as racist politician who helped created our current systemic racism:

In a 1909 speech at the Red Shirt Reunion in Anderson, SC, Tillman boasted about his role in the 1876 murder of six Black militia members, whom he called “negro thugs.” White leaders celebrated the “Hamburg Riot” as a key victory of the 1876 Red Shirt paramilitary campaign, which successfully intimidated Black voters and stuffed ballot boxes to ensure the election of Wade Hampton III, and with it, the end of Reconstruction. Today, these murders are known as the Hamburg Massacre, one of the earliest lynchings in South Carolina.

Although he began as a perpetrator, Tillman later used his platform as governor and senator to serve as an instigator of and advocate for racial violence. Perhaps his most well-known pronouncement occurred in an 1892 speech, when, as governor [emphasis added], he vowed that “I would lead a lynching”–a claim carried by the state’s leading newspapers. His election to the governorship in 1890 unleashed what human rights activist Modjeska Monteith Simkins later called “an era of lynching.” By the end of the decade, at least 53 men, 51 of whom were Black, were lynched in South Carolina.

Yet, Tillman was most proud of his role in the Constitutional Convention of 1895, which introduced an “understanding clause” and poll tax as barriers to the vote, designed to eradicate Black participation in government. In a speech to his fellow United States Senators [emphasis added] five years later, he reminded them that, “We [South Carolinians] did not disfranchise [sic] the negroes until 1895. Then we had a constitutional convention convened which took the matter up calmly, deliberately, and avowedly with the purpose of disenfranchising as many of them as we could under the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments….” This speech affirmed a sentiment repeated throughout his career on the national stage about the role of African Americans in American democracy:

“We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be the equal of the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.”

Historic Columbia

Today, we all live in a country under systems intentionally designed to be racist—some as overt as Tillman but others far more subtle (consider the sentencing differences between powder and crack cocaine and racial disparities in police shootings).

CRT and anti-racism efforts ask us to consider how these racial disparities came to be, how they continue to exist in today’s society, and what we can do to dismantle the inequities.

Denial and neutrality allow racism and racial inequity to remain; only naming, exploring critically, and confronting racism can erase racism.

Consider this second example, drawn from headlines within the last decade.

How did the killing of Tamir Rice by a police officer occur?:

“Shots fired, male down,” one of the officers in the car called across his radio. “Black male, maybe 20 [emphasis added], black revolver, black handgun by him. Send E.M.S. this way, and a roadblock.”

But the boy, Tamir Rice, was only 12. Now, with the county sheriff’s office reviewing the shooting, interviews and recently released video and police records show how a series of miscommunications, tactical errors and institutional failures by the Cleveland police cascaded into one irreversible mistake.

In Tamir Rice Case, Many Errors by Cleveland Police, Then a Fatal One

A racist stereotype (Black males are inherently dangerous and violent) combined with implicit bias (Black children are viewed as much older and more mature than their biological ages) led to the death of Rice. This tragic event is a real-life manifestation of what CRT argues, systemic forces with material consequences for Black people.

A police officer shooting and killing a Black boy, then, does not have to be a consciously racist individual to have acted in a way that is driven by systemic racism.

As further evidence, just a few years later, Kyle Rittenhouse, then 17, shot and killed two people during protests in Wisconsin. The same conservatives attacking CRT refer to Black boys as “men” and Rittenhouse as a “boy.”

Attacks on CRT and anti-racism initiatives are embarrassing and offensive caricatures; these attacks are themselves racist and provide the evidence proving why CRT and anti-racism practices remain necessary.

We are now facing a paradox because the misleading attacks on CRT are justification for increasing CRT and other anti-racism efforts in K-12 and higher education.

CRT is incredibly rare in any formal education setting. More K-12 and higher education situations are incorporating (often begrudgingly) anti-racism practices and examinations (which may or may not have elements informed by CRT).

Diversity, equity, and inclusion experiences for children are not blaming all white people or white students simply for being white; but those discussions are designed, as noted above, to critically explore how evidence-based racial disparities came to be, how they continue to exist in today’s society, and what we can do to dismantle the inequities.

Being white is not a crime, but denying racism is itself an act of racism.

To take a stand against anti-racism (against CRT) is taking a stand for racism.

In this case, we can say “not all white people,” but clearly identify those people white or Black who are to blame when they seek ways to deny and perpetuate the racism that remains in our daily lives.

How Do We Know?: Not Simple, Not Settled

In the early to mid-1980s, I entered the world of serious recreational cycling. I had been an athlete throughout my childhood and teen years, but found myself sedentary and out of shape in the first few years of my career as a high school English teacher.

Road cycling wasn’t the most inviting of sports, being both an individual and group endeavor. I quickly discovered, in fact, that cycling is deeply tradition-bound and steeped in ritual and conformity.

Ultimately, it is also an orchestra of Social Darwinism; you must be strong enough and skilled enough to ride with a group regardless of anything else (such as the right bicycle or the proper kit).

Early on, I had to focus on fitness—riding more often and longer, but always alone—and finding ways I could afford ever-better bicycles (see Rule 12). Gradually, I began shaving my legs and made the most daunting commitment facing me, using toe clips on my pedals.

Greg LeMond (L) strapped into the traditional toe clips along side Bernard Hinault (R) sporting the future, clipless pedals (a design inspired by ski bindings and pioneered by Look).

Toe clips were a must among serious cyclists, but they involved literally reaching down and tightening a leather or nylon strap around your feet. The monumental learning curve was reaching down to tighten the straps and always reaching down to flick the release when coming to a stop.

At the time, I lived only a couple miles from my bicycle shop so I rode my bicycle there to buy my first toe clips. They installed the clips to my pedals and went over how to tighten and release.

Filled with glee about my next step toward being a real cyclist, I rolled out of the shop parking lot and promptly came to a stop at a red light where I fell over fairly dramatically beside several cars—having completely forgotten to reach down to loosen the straps.

Just as I had to learn how to shift gears (old-school down-tube friction shifting), I learned to tighten and release the toe clips along with dozens of other behaviors necessary to ride in tight packs of cyclists at high intensity and to near exhaustion.

High-paced group cycling is a mix of many precise behaviors in incredibly tense contexts—from being dropped from the group to being in or causing a serious accident.

That was three decades ago, and today (after many changes to pedals and shifting) I function on a bicycle in ways that seem entirely natural, requiring essentially no thought.

Matching kits, clipless pedals.

Cycling for me is automatic behavior; I also have acquired an incredible amount of knowledge about bicycles (I do bicycle maintenance and build bicycles) and the history of the sport.

I often think of this journey in learning of mine, which was again prompted by a few exchanges on Twitter:

These comments about what we know and how we know it are common, but, I think, trapped in a misunderstanding about, for example, “rote memorization.”

Memorization and automatic behavior are not about “bad” or “good.” In fact, memorization and automatic behavior are inevitable for most humans, even essential.

The trap can be exposed by considering a behavior most of us have in common—assembling something from parts such as a TV stand or entertainment unit, or a children’s toy.

Do you recall opening the box, spreading out the parts, laying out the directions, and then beginning to assemble? Was there a moment (or several) while assembling when you turned from the directions to look on the box at the image of the fully assembled item?

So here is my point: The Twitter exchange above is trapped in viewing learning in a reductive way based on part-to-whole, easier-to-harder, sequential perceptions of learning.

This singular and reductive view is the trap.

Since most of the items we assemble are a one-time event, that assembly is both learning to assemble and assembling at the same time. (I once assembled a TV stand, badly, and then my in-laws wanted the same stand. The second assembly was a near-euphoric experience since I was able to apply what I had learned from doing the whole thing one time before.)

My journey in cycling and my assembly example here reveal that learning resulting in memorization and automatic behavior is extremely complex and is in fact an interplay between part and whole, not a step-by-step journey from part to whole.

“Breaking it down” is not always easier or clearer for some students, in some learning activities.

Many people learning to use toe straps, for example, would go into a grass field, strap in, and (as I did publicly) fall down repeatedly. Learning the real thing required doing the whole and real thing relatively badly until they improved (motivated by real consequences).

There is no debate, then, about the good or bad in memorization or automatic behavior. The real tension is about how and why we come to memorize or behave automatically.

Despite misleading claims that memorization is a foundation, we often come to know something, have it memorized, after (not before) we have rich and complex experiences with the knowledge or behavior.

In my doctoral program, I had to perform from memory in two intense settings—written comps and dissertation defense. I studied for neither because I had engaged with the material for so long and in such intense situations (course work, numerous papers, a full dissertation) that I had much of the material in recall.

Twenty-five-plus years later, much of that dissertation work remains in recall for me.

Like with cycling, my final doctoral work felt natural, as much a part of me as pedaling with my hands off the handlebars while I remove my cycling vest and stuff it into a rear pocket while sitting at the back of a high-paced group.

The quests for silver-bullets and simple step-by-step paths to learning and automatic behavior are at the core of many educational debates, in fact, including the incessant reading debate.

The complexity of cycling reminds me of the complexity in reading—the many interconnected behaviors and knowledge required to do both automatically and well.

Reading, learning to read, and teaching someone to read—like all learning—are not simple and how we come to know is just not settled.

In fact, learning will never be simple or settled because human beings are far too complex.

The paradox, of course, is that how we know is simple to explain: It is some type of interplay between doing the whole thing we want to learn and coming to know the many intricate parts that make up that whole thing.

How do we know?

It is a journey—not simple, not settled.

Plagiarism, Accountability, and Adult Hypocrisy

You said “I think I’m like Tennessee Williams”
I wait for the click. I wait, but it doesn’t kick in

“City Middle,” The National

A refrain by my father throughout my childhood and into my adolescence has shaped how I try to live my life; it remains possibly the strongest impulse I have as an adult.

My father’s parenting philosophy was possibly as misguided as it was reflective of the essential problem with how adults interact with children and teens: “Do as I say, not as I do.”

As a child growing up in the rural crossroads of Enoree, South Carolina, I witnessed my father announcing his dictum, sitting in our living room with a glass of Crown Royal in one hand and a cigarette in the other.

By the time I was a teen, the scenes were often far more physical, occasionally ending with me on the floor as my father attempted to wrestle me into compliance.

A game of him demanding, “Don’t say another word,” and me replying, “Word,” as he tightening his hold on me against the faux-brick linoleum of a different living room floor.

Adulthood for me has included a career in education, where I have taught and coached, and I am a father and grandfather. I am routinely tested, then, by interacting with children and young adults—challenged not to give into the adult hypocrisy of my father, of nearly every adult I encounter.

When the now-former president of the University of South Carolina was exposed as having plagiarized the end of his graduation speech, I immediately thought of my father and adult hypocrisy, certain that little or nothing would come of the plagiarism by the head of an institution that routinely holds students to draconian expectations for plagiarism and academic honesty.

In this case—unlike many high-profile examples that include Joe Biden, Melania Trump, and Rand Paul—Bob Caslen resigned, but there appeared to be nothing to suggest he was going to be held accountable by the system. And honestly, little consequences will occur to Caslen’s power, wealth, or status.

The university-level equivalent of this for students would be if a student were caught plagiarizing and that student were allowed to drop the course without any academic penalty, continuing on with coursework from there.

In academia, however, plagiarism for students tends to result in an assignment zero, a course F, or expulsion. Caslen is experiencing nothing equivalent to these consequences for students.

Since I teach writing, primarily first-year and upper-level writing at the university level, I often write about plagiarism and citation because these aspect of academic writing are both essential and deeply problematic.

I have even referred to the citation/plagiarism trap since consequences for plagiarism and the gauntlet of citation in college scholarship are disproportionately elements of stress for both students and professors.

The tension for me as a teacher, scholar, and writer is that I recognize how academic honesty and the mechanics of citation serve a writer’s credibility even while citation formatting and style guides are unnecessarily complex and often arbitrary to the point of inanity.

When we are dealing with citation, I find myself telling students that I recognize that APA, for example, is often mind-numbingly complex and essential in academic contexts that require formal citation (students also write using hyperlinks as citation, which emphasizes the possibility of citing that is academically honest and not tedious and pedantic).

The harsh reality about adulthood is that accountability, despite all the grandstanding adults do about it, is heaped mostly upon the youngest, the weakest, and the most marginalized. People with status—Biden, Paul, Melania Trump, Caslen—breeze through life little troubled by the bar we set for children, teens, and young adults in formal schooling.

“Pretenses. Hypocrisy” have driven Big Daddy into a rage, and Brick, to drink.

Especially for those of us charged with the care and education of children, teens, and young adults, we must lead by example; nothing is a worse lesson for young people than rhetoric that contradicts action.

If academic honesty and the proper attribution of other people’s words and ideas matter—and I think they do—certainly those standards must be higher for adults than children.

Otherwise, we are proving children right when they realize—as I did one day as a child standing in a smokey living room in Enoree, SC—that adult words are too often bullshit.

Despite all the jumbled mess that is the work and life of William Faulkner, I side with Addie from As I Lay Dying:

So I took Anse. And when I knew that I had Cash, I knew that living was terrible and that this was the answer to it. That was when I learned that words are no good; that words dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at.

As I Lay Dying (p. 171)

“Words are no good,” that is, when actions reveal that they are merely words that serve to ask more of some than of others.


Some words are predictable—”arrogant,” “intimidating,” “mean,” “stoic,” “blunt,” “sarcastic.”

Predictable, that is, as descriptions of me.

I anticipate them, and I recognize they are inaccurate in some (most?) ways. They also hurt, sting at the very core of who I am, who I try to be.

Especially as a teacher.

Recently, a new label popped up—”passive aggressive.”

I didn’t expect that because “passive aggressive” doesn’t square with “blunt,” which I most certainly am. The context was also frustrating since it involved me frantically communicating (mostly on my phone email App) with a student who had put themselves in a precarious situation, about to fail a course by not meeting minimum requirements.

Since expectations for my course are explicit on my course materials, and since I routinely email students reminding students of those expectations (as well as express them aloud in class several times throughout a semester), I had every right to let the situation play out in a way that would not have served the student well.

In my efforts to find some avenue for this student to pass the course, however, my email communications were characterized as “passive aggressive,” and the conversation turned to the ways in which I was responsible for the situation.

This event sits in the context of recent course SETs showing a pattern of students finding my feedback “mean” and “blunt” (one comment noted I am supportive and patient in conferences, but not in written feedback).

While none of this is really new (except the “passive aggressive” charge), I suspect some of the student perceptions are exaggerated by the tensions created in our Covid-19 context; I certainly feel far more stress, and have trouble with patience because of the pervasive stress of the pandemic and how that has changed dramatically the teaching/learning conditions of my courses.

Since I do not grade assignments and I require as well as allow students to revise major works as often as they choose, my courses are extremely gracious and low-stakes when compared to traditional courses.

Yes, my non-graded approach does cause some paradoxical stress for students accustomed to grades and tests, but ultimately, the criticisms offered by students have a clear source—me, as a person, or more specifically my text-based persona in written feedback and emails.

Having taught for 37 years, and having spent about half that career working with 100-125 students at a time, I have honed an incredibly important skill to facilitate my primary work as a teacher of writing—efficiency.

As a high school English teacher, I experimented for several years with how to give feedback on thousands of student essays so that I could return those drafts quickly and not spend hours and hours responding. Eventually I created a numbering system that allowed me to mark and highlight on student drafts, assigning numbers that students then used to refer to a text I wrote that guided their revision (see here).

That system helped me be efficient (students received essays back the same or next day after submitting), but it also supported my efforts to foster students as independent writers (not simply “correcting” the “errors” I marked).

Quick and efficient responses to my students are behaviors I pride myself on. I tend to respond to student emails immediately, often on my phone.

People who know me also know my emails are exceedingly brief. I return student essays as Word attachments, and the text of the email tends to be only “attached.”

I return my university students’ essays the same day, often within a couple hours of their being due. Brevity in emailing allows me to work quickly.

Brevity, however, isn’t always the best form of communication.

Usually when a course has just begun, a student or two will respond to my “attached” email by noting they had attached their submission, failing to see I was returning their draft with my comments (some of that confusion is that they usually wait days for essays to be returned in other courses).

I have abandoned my numbering system since I handle a much lower paper load teaching at the university level. I still respond with very terse comments and use a great deal of highlighting, guiding students to ample support material to support their revisions.

At the beginning of a course, I do warn students not to interpret my comments on their writing or my emails as negative, angry, or sarcastic. I also stress that any questions I ask are genuine questions; their answers inform how I continue to help them.

Notably, since I provide a great deal of support material (such as sample essays with notes provided in the margins), I often ask students if they used the support materials and samples when submitting their draft. It is quite a different thing if they have (and the materials didn’t help) or if they simply chose not to.

At 60, I certainly can be brief to the point of blunt. Less patient? Probably.

I am often perceived as stoic (caveat: I am an introvert), and as a result, viewed as intimidating (although that charge really does hurt my feelings).

And then the Universe steps in: How to decipher a curt or passive-aggressive email by Erica Dhawan.

Dhawan examines specifically emails that are brief and confronts the problem of intent versus perception, but also the importance of the imbalance of power in communications that are brief:

Brevity from the upper echelons of power isn’t exactly uncommon. At Morgan Stanley, there was a running joke that the more senior you were, the fewer characters you needed to express your gratitude in a text or email. You started your career with Thank you so much! and after a promotion or two, this was cut down to Thanks. Another promotion produced Thx or even TX. One senior leader just wrote T.

How to decipher a curt or passive-aggressive email

What is important for my situation (and I do recommend reading the entire article, which is itself brief) is that brevity is often perceived as inadequate feedback and passive aggressive.

Regardless of my intentions or my warnings to students, their psychological and emotional responses to my written feedback and emails over-ride the significant feedback I do provide as well as the person they encounter when we talk face-to-face (in reality or on Zoom).

As an old dog, I am faced with having to learn new tricks because the consequences of these dynamics do negatively impact the teaching/learning environment of my classes.

At the core of this tension is, again, the power imbalance; despite my best efforts to foster a relationship with students that is collaborative and cooperative, students have mostly had somewhat antagonistic relationships with teachers, notably in the context of submitting writing to be evaluated.

Dhawan concludes: “If you have a high level of trust, opt for the phone call, and don’t hesitate to respond quickly and informally. If you have less trust or a higher gap in power levels, be specific and polite in your responses and use formal channels.” This is in the context of business relationships, but as an educator, I recognize the same problem because at the university level I have less time to foster trust and cannot ignore the “gap in power levels” between professors and students.

“Brevity is the soul of wit” is an often misunderstood line from Shakespeare (folk quote it as a pearl of wisdom although Shakespeare is using it to parody Polonius, a blowhard who is never brief and often wrong).

It turns out, in the digital era, brevity is the source of miscommunication.

[Insert face palm emoji here]

Student Agency and Responsibilities when Learning to Write: More on the Failure of SETs

As anticipated and predicted, my student evaluations of teaching (SET) included what has become a classic contradiction; in my first-year writing seminar, I received strong praise for my feedback and diligent support for students revising their writing along side a student who proclaimed that I provided no valuable feedback.

I typically share this recurring evidence that SETs are deeply flawed on social media, and I also reached out to students in my upper-level writing/research course since the SETs from that course had a much higher number of negative comments than is typical (again including contradictory responses about my feedback and support for revising).

Several comments on social media—including those by former high school students from decades ago and current colleagues—helped me work past the frustration of anonymous and misguided comments. In short, I want to stress that while SET data lack validity, student comments may offer more insight into the students themselves than the quality of instruction or the teacher/professor.

Students who are critical of a course or a professor are often failing to confront their own agency as learners and likely did not follow through on their responsibilities in the teaching/learning process. This, however, still deserves consideration by teachers/professors who are seeking ways in which to shift the responsibility of learning from the teacher/professor and to the student.

That shift has been a point of tension for my entire career, approaching 40 years, focusing primarily on teaching writing for secondary and college students.

My frustration lies in the disconnect between the enormous amount of time I spend supporting students learning to write (giving detailed feedback, providing resources and support material for writing and revising, and conducting conferences) and those students who both do not fully engage in the workshop model and insist on characterizing their lack of engagement as a failure on my part to provide adequate feedback.

Some of that tension also lies in students conflating my not grading assignments and not being overly prescriptive in writing assignments (few or broad prompts and no rubrics) with “not providing feedback” and “doesn’t give clear directions of what he wants.”

For context, here are the support materials I provide students in order to support their agency as learners:

Based on these materials alone, I think no reasonable person could accuse me of failing to provide enough feedback; certainly “no valuable feedback” seems unfair.

But I need to stress that these support materials are just that, support, and they are provided concurrent with direct instruction in class, textbooks on writing, and my own feedback on their writing and in conferences.

One of my primary goals as a teacher of writing over four decades has been how to foster in students the ability to write and revise when independent of me or any teacher—their agency and autonomy.

Over my career, I have become less and less prescriptive and offer fewer and fewer direct marking on student writing. One strategy I have used throughout my career is highlighting areas needing revision/editing and prompting students to use the support material in order to revise/edit.

I also have increased significantly using questions in my feedback, including asking directly if students have used the support material when drafting or revising.

Something I had not anticipated is that more students are offended by that question, interpreting it as passive aggressive and even “mean.”

In order to teach well, however, I need to know if the student writing is a result of the student choosing not to use the support material or the result of the support material not being effective (note the “REV” and “UPDATED” on many of the materials above since I am constantly revising based on feedback from students).

When I conferenced with my high school students, for whom I had prepared a textbook for revising (now somewhat reproduced here) that allowed me to respond very quickly by placing numbers and highlighting where students needed to revise and edit, I always asked if they used that text that explained the issue and provided revision strategies; if the student said “no,” I sent them back to their desks to work on their own before I provided more feedback.

I want students to revise and edit independently because otherwise I am revising and editing the essay for them.

With my college students, I typically provide feedback and note that they need to address similar occurrences throughout the essay, noting the need to review the writing beyond what I have marked (often, however, I simply highlight recurring areas needing revision).

None the less, I repeatedly stress to students that they are encouraged to request a conference with me if they are uncertain how to revise or edit based on the highlighting or my comments.

At this juncture, I am noticing another tension—students shutting down because they find feedback “negative”; this is the source of students saying that I am “mean” or that the feedback makes them feel “not smart.”

My university is a selective college, and these students have been A or nearly A students throughout high school; they also tend to suffer from the paralysis of perfectionism.

For these students, one of the most difficult responsibilities of them as students learning to write is having to re-imagine what learning is.

Some students want to submit perfect work only so the concept of revision is difficult for them because they are uncomfortable with any of their work being marked “wrong” or needing “correction.” Of course, learning to write means embracing the reality that all writing can and should be revised and edited, even by the most seasoned writer.

For students learning to write, however, feedback and revision/editing are necessary, preferably several drafts over an extended period of time.

One senior from the upper-level writing/research course provided what I think is an extremely perceptive observation about the role of the student learning to write: “There must be a dialogue and extra steps that students must take if they want to excel.”

Some of the tension expressed in my SETs this spring is likely due to the reduced bandwidth we are all experiencing mid-Covid-19. But the difficulty many students face embracing their own autonomy and their role in learning to write is nothing new.

Ironically, while my university and most other universities use SETs to evaluate professors, the best use of that feedback may be as mirrors for students who seek ways to place blame for their not learning at anyone else’s feet except their own.

My job remains finding ways to help students take ownership for their writing and to foster in them the skills and confidence to draft, revise, and edit independently.

That job will continue to be a painful one for me and my students.

Welcome to South Carolina: A State of Denial

In the United States of America, the stated law of the land is “innocent until proven guilty.”

However, police in the U.S. shoot and kill about 1000 people a year, denying them due process, acting as judge, jury, and executioner instead of the claimed role of “protect and serve.”

The U.S. is experiencing a mild reckoning, specifically linked to the killing of George Floyd but broadly connected to how policing and the legal system continue to be racially inequitable—or as many conservatives and the media refuse to state, racist.

A vocal and likely substantial portion of the U.S.—mostly white and often white men with power—have decided that naming racism is more harmful and offensive than actual racism.

Police killing citizens must also be put in the context that the U.S. stands out among peer nations in terms of gun violence.

It is mid-2021, and the world is suffering more than a year in a global pandemic.

It is mid-2021, and the guilty verdict of Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin still lingers in the news.

Yet, Republican leaders in South Carolina have decided that a pressing issue is the death penalty—voting to reinstate the firing squad.

South Carolina, the home of one of the most horrific mass shootings targeting Black people sitting in church, has Republicans who are choosing to give the state the right to shoot and kill convicted prisoners in a legal and prison system that disproportionately convicts Black people.

Conservatives and Republicans in South Carolina—again, it is 2021—continue to wave the Confederate flag in one hand while thumping the Bible in the other—are endorsing gun violence by the state.

Very Christian.

Christian, that is, in the tradition of the KKK.

As reprehensible as this move is by Republicans, it simply isn’t the only evidence that white men with power are the most fragile people in the U.S.

Republicans in South Carolina have jumped on the white-washing of history bandwagon, prompted in the final days of Trump.

Republicans in South Carolina have ended federal unemployment benefits.

Republicans in South Carolina seek open carry, finding any and every way to appease their gun fantasies.

But possibly the most stark example of denial and white fragility is bill H630, which ends with this jumbled nonsense:

1.105. (SDE: Partisanship Curriculum) For the current fiscal year, of the funds allocated by the Department of Education to school districts, no monies shall be used by any school district or school to provide instruction in, to teach, instruct, or train any administrator, teacher, staff member, or employee to adopt or believe, or to approve for use, make use of, or carry out standards, curricula, lesson plans, textbooks, instructional materials, or instructional practices that serve to inculcate any of the following concepts: (1) one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex; (2) an individual, by virtue of his race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously; (3) an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his race or sex; (4) an individuals moral standing or worth is necessarily determined by his race or sex; (5) an individual, by virtue of his race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex; (6) an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his race or sex; (7) meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist, or were created by members of a particular race to oppress members of another race; and (8) fault, blame, or bias should be assigned to a race or sex, or to members of a race or sex because of their race or sex. Nothing contained herein shall be construed as prohibiting any professional development training for teachers related to issues of addressing unconscious bias within the context of teaching certain literary or historical concepts or issues related to the impacts of historical or past discriminatory policies.

2021-2022 As passed by the Senate

Republicans across the U.S. are simultaneously know-nothings and people with disproportionate power to impose that lack of understanding not simply on public policy but on the very education of the children who will inherit the country.

This senseless passage at the end of bill H630 is the exact language being used in several states and it grows out of the fear-mongering around critical race theory.

Please take the 8 minutes to watch Marc Lamont Hill interview Dr. Imani Perry about the Big Lie around critical race theory now spreading across the country:

And as Victor Ray, professor of sociology (University of Iowa), explains:

Critical race theory arose to explain why structural racism endures. Given the racial conflicts roiling American politics, scholarly analysis of the causes and consequences of racial inequality may be more important now than at its inception….

Despite internal disagreements, critical race theorists have documented a stunning (and disturbing) array of racial inequalities that can’t be explained by the acts of individual racists. 

Perspective | Trump calls critical race theory ‘un-American.’ Let’s review.

But let’s return to the exchange between Hill and Perry.

As they note, this Republican attack on critical race theory is mostly a lie since those attacking it do not know what the term means, and, this is important, critical race theory simply isn’t being taught in the vast majority of schools in the U.S.; as Hill notes, it is a solution in pursuit of a problem.

Republican leaders and those who support them persist to prove James Baldwin correct:

rigid refusal

Lies and deception are the foundational strategies of Republicans, reaching back to William F. Buckley.

They can’t handle the truth—a truth that, once again, Baldwin asserted:

Every white person in this country—and I do not care what he or she says—knows one thing. They may not know, as they put it, “what I want,” but they know they would not like to be black here. If they know that, then they know everything they need to know, and whatever else they say is a lie.

On Language, Race and the Black Writer, James Baldwin (Los Angeles Times, 1979)

The Big Lies of the Republican Party are really not about denying racism, but about protecting their white advantages.

Thus, as Perry implores, “We cannot be held to their terms because their terms are deceptive.”

The Problem of Student Engagement in Writing Workshop

Imagine you are a teacher who says to students, “You can revise your work as often as you want to learn as much as you can and achieve the grade you want.”

Imagine you are student who replies, “No thanks.”

As a critical teacher and teacher educator, I have spent about 40 years not swimming against the stream but floating, isolated, in an entirely different body of water.

I have not graded assignments or given tests for about 30 of those years, and for nearly all of my teaching career, my students have experienced a workshop format for learning. Distinct from writer’s workshop in creative writing, the workshop I implement is grounded in concepts often associated with Nancie Atwell, who popularized workshop as designing instruction/learning around time, ownership, and response.

The instructional workshop model I practice allows students large blocks of time (during class sessions and between the start and end of an assignment), varying degrees of choice in how to focus an assignment, and ample as well as repeated feedback from me and their peers to foster revision.

When I taught high school English, students spent most of class time engaged in modified versions of reading or writing workshop. For almost two decades at the university level, I have primarily been implementing writing workshop in my first-year writing seminar and more recently in an upper-level writing/research seminar.

Since I don’t grade assignments or give tests, my students submit portfolios at the end of each semester; those portfolios in writing-intensive courses are primarily final drafts of major writing assignments. Also central to having a course that is non-graded, students have minimum expectations for participating in courses that I frame as non-negotiable for being allowed to submit the final portfolio/exam and for being assigned a grade in the course [1].

The short version is that students who do not meet minimum requirements are assigned a failing grade for the course.

Grading from those final portfolios is fairly easy and quick since I have been responding to the assignments throughout the semester; however, part of my process is to review each student’s folder of assignments to note how often they have revised and resubmitted their work.

I am often frustrated, even disappointed, that several students participate only in the minimum requirements although I allow and encourage students to revise and resubmit as often as they want.

Student participation in revising/resubmitting tends to fall into four categories: students who revise/resubmit far too quickly and too often, resulting in me doing more of the revising than them (I do address this); students who eventually “get it” and revise/resubmit with care and purpose while embracing their own autonomy and role in revising; students who do the bare minimum and cannot rise above the role as “dutiful student” to embrace being an engaged writer/scholar; and then, students who actively and passively refuse to participate.

Especially when teaching at the secondary and college levels, those of us practicing non-traditional approaches (non-grading, workshop) are asking (imploring?) students to set aside a decade-plus of learned behavior that is grounded more in student behavior than authentic behavior (seeking grades instead of focusing on learning, turning in paper assignments instead of writing an essay they choose to an audience they imagine or have provided).

Even when I stress in nearly every class session that students are required to revise and resubmit major writing assignments, that students are also allowed to revise and resubmit throughout the course, and that ultimately full engagement in the workshop model tends to result in higher course grades, I find a significant number of students doing the bare minimum and have to nearly drag kicking and screaming a few out of their insistence to fail the course.

As one extreme example, I had a first-year writing student who turned in no essays throughout the semester, even though they attended class, and then submitted all four essays in the final portfolio; that student was stunned and upset at receiving an F.

It is from the barely engaged and not engaged students that I learned the following reasons some (too many) students never fully commit to writing workshop:

  • Misunderstanding the differences between editing and revising.
  • Perceiving formal schooling as product-oriented, not process-oriented.
  • Viewing feedback as criticism.
  • Failure to recognize that when one is becoming a writer, there is no finish line.
  • Misunderstanding the role of teachers (seeing teachers as evaluators instead of mentors).
  • Having little or no sense of autonomy as a learner (or a human).
  • Functioning in the defensive student pose of avoiding mistakes (not submitting work means nothing can be identified as “wrong”); being risk-averse instead of risk-embracing.
  • Viewing the relationship between a teacher and student as antagonistic instead of collaborative.
  • Being trapped in the paralysis of perfectionism.

As I approach the end of four decades teaching, mostly focusing on teaching writing, I am faced with a burdensome paradox about my non-graded workshop approaches to teaching: students learn more and earn higher grades when they are fully engaged in the non-graded workshop approach, but many remain unable or unwilling to make the commitment necessary to realize those advantages.

Teaching writing well in a workshop model is incredibly labor intensive, but also extremely rewarding; however, it is also easy to be discouraged by the students who simply cannot or will not allow the process to benefit them.

For those students, the negative consequences of traditional approaches to teaching and grading have failed them, possibly irrevocably.

[1] My minimum requirement statement from my upper-level writing/research course (recently revised):

Course Minimum Requirements

As a student in an upper-level writing/research course, you are required to meet the following minimum requirements in order to receive credit (have a grade assigned) in the course:

  1. Submit all assignments and meet deadlines throughout the semester.
  2. All major writing assignments (annotated bibliography, cited essay, and public commentary) must be submitted in multiple drafts (first full submission and at least one revision) that include at least one conference per assignment with the professor. 
  3. The second half of the course is a writing/research workshop; all students are required to submit multiple drafts during the course (before the last course session) in order to fulfill the course minimum requirements. Failure to participate fully in the workshop for the major assignments (annotated bibliography, cited essay, and public commentary) will result in an F for the course and students may not submit a final portfolio.
  4. Scholarly work must be properly cited and free of plagiarism; scholarly work should be formatted and submitted as required and should conform to the APA 7e style manual when appropriate.