Still… Teaching to Transgress

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about bell hooks’s book, Teaching to Transgress, in part based on her series of taped, public dialogues that she has been doing at the New School (and her upcoming keynote address at NWSA) and, in another part, based on my own current teaching location.

I have felt for a long time now that if we want to talk about a radical, transformative education for young people of color, we need to be teaching in the schools that actually enroll them in large numbers.   I have said it and I have meant it. And I do not mean after-school programs, though our presence there is vital. I mean bearing witness to the day-to-day of current schooling regimes as an insider there, not merely as an academic researcher/note-taker. You can call me an Old Skool Black Studies Scholar in that regard, because I just can’t see giving all that I know how to do solely to white students at a privileged university, no matter how much they might need to see and hear someone like me.  I have worked now in three spaces as a tenure-track professor at colleges whose enrollments are largely or mostly students of color from racially subordinated groups: a state university (not the flagship campus, but a space trying to be that); a private university; and a city university. Teaching to Trangress in these spaces is more than just a notion, especially when it is so dauntingly unwelcomed by what Sylvia Wynter would often call “the grammarians of the social order”— those academics whose intellectual lens are so deeply ingrained with dominant reproductive modes of racism and social stratification that their sole, intellectual job is the maintenance of our current systems of logic. You don’t even need to strain your mind and imagination to recognize who these folk are.

Today, I have been looking at the ELA Regents exam in New York State, the state exam in English Language Arts.  Here is the August 2014 exam posted on the state website:

Purchasable Test Prep

Purchasable Test Prep

I won’t go into my issues with standardized testing, timed writing exams, rubric cloning (they all look the same across the country even when folk claim they are doing “local” assessment).  The ELA exam— its tasks and perspectives of reading and writing about literature— may not be that awful, as some like to say; the problem still comes though from the assumption that these ideals of critical reading, writing, and speaking and analysis are captured in a one-time test. The arguments against all of that are just too old and well-rehearsed by now.  The stories of the ways that teachers, students, and parents have triumphed against all of this is a much more interesting story, but that’s not why I looked at the ELA regents today, a test that is usually given in the 11th grade of high school in New York City.  I looked because I had a hunch, a hunch I couldn’t keep ignoring.  Here is what I suspected: a great deal of the work that many college students do, at my college for example (I am talking here about 200-level and 300-level courses), for the purposes of assessment in their literature classes— the quiz questions (that get left in the copier), the final exams, the diagnostic test, the departmental exam— look like an 11th grade standardized test.  One quick scan of the exam and my suspicions were confirmed. One might argue that the 11th grade state exam is a college-preparatory experience since it represents exactly the kind of assignments and course exams kids will see in their college literature classes… but then one would ALSO need to ask what is the difference between a high school literature class and a college literature class if the students are all doing almost exactly the same thing in both spaces?  I KNOW I got me some questions right there. You might also need to ask why working class students of color at public institutions receive a college curriculum that looks so stunningly like high school assignments and how college faculty are anointing themselves with notions of rigor and high standards for this stuff?  I got me even more questions right there. For whom is this kind of thing good enough?

Kipp Schools' Scores

Kipp Schools’ Scores

The good news, at least in some corners of high school research, is that if you do well as a high schooler on your ELA exam in NYC, then you will do well in your college literature class.  Since regents scores by schools, districts, charters, etc get reported like basketball scores, this will excite many.   But that truism might only be accurate if you do not attend a more elite college.  The bad news, for students, is that your good ELA work will take you nowhere.  I don’t think the ELA writers intend for that exam to be a litmus test for the likes of entry into graduate school or competitive jobs in a globally networked society.  That being said, today I have even more questions about why college teachers would insist on implementing secondary schools’ curricular/testing strategies in their classes and programs and why they think so highly of themselves for doing so.