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:

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Congratulations Seattle Teachers!

Teachers, students and parents in Seattle, Washington have drawn a great deal of public attention in the past few months for their campaign to reject standardized tests in reading and math. Despite threats of a 10-day suspension without pay, a January boycott led by teachers at Garfield High School quickly spread.  A week ago, the school district announced that the MAP test (Measures of Academic Progress) is now optional, allowing schools to design/create their own assessment cultures outside of for-profit, corporate-designed/controlled measurements systems.

Here is Jesse Hagopian, a high school history teacher at Garfield High School, interviewed by Democracy Now.

And here is Jesse Hagopian with Wayne Au, author of Unequal By Design: High-Stakes Testing and the Standardization of Inequality:

I am most impressed by the website and research that teachers themselves engaged as part of how they would imagine and create alternatives to a rampant testing culture.  Here are the important reminders they give us about standardized testing:

  • Narrows curriculum both within a subject and across the entire scholastic curriculum by de-emphasizing untested subjects
  • Decreases rigor by emphasizing memory recall and test-taking skills over critical and creative thinking
  • Exacerbates inequities for students of color/poverty
  • Is often used for the purpose of implementing policies such as holding back elementary students and tracking students, which are shown to be detrimental
  • Negatively affects students’ self-perception as competent learners
  • Narrows debate on what’s considered important in education– ignores larger issues such as poverty, class size, funding equity

I think their three recommendations are also stunningly clear and provocative:

Assessments should incorporate a variety of measures, possibly gathered into a body of evidence that demonstrates abilities. These measures, taken together, should:

  • Include classroom work
  • Allow teacher and student choice
  • Integrate with curriculum
  • Demonstrate student growth as well as standards achievement
  • Be free of gender, class, and racial bias

Valid assessments:

  • Reflect actual knowledge and learning, not test taking skills
  • Are educational in and of themselves
  • Are differentiated to meet students’ needs
  • Allow opportunity to go back and improve
  • Have tasks that reflect real world thinking and abilities

The creation and review of assessments should:

  • Include community input
  • Undergo regular evaluation and revision by educators
  • Be graded by teachers collaboratively

SeattleTeacherProtest-1As I read these teachers’ collaborative research, watched their protests, and followed their blog, I couldn’t help but think of a Latino high school teacher who I met at 4Cs (Conference on College Composition and Communication) a few years back, himself an educational activist and researcher.  He had come to 4Cs to learn new radical literacy approaches for high school work with his predominantly Latin@ students but instead was dismayed by how irrelevant almost everything he heard was to any critical awareness of race and the experiences of students of color in schools today.  It was the BEST conversation I have ever had at 4Cs and, perhaps, the most engaging.  When I think of him and these teachers at Garfield, I think about how far, far behind we are, as compositionists, in terms of educational activism for communities of color.  I am often surprised by how many compositionists think they are doing something so much more advanced than what happens in high schools with their traditionalist notions of discourse and college curricular content.  I have never met a person who moves towards this self-congratulatory gesture who I thought actually deserved the praise they were bestowing on themselves.  I am grateful for the high school teachers like the ones being chronicled here.  They remind me of what is possible beyond the social limits of composition studies.

Professional-Managerial Class (PMC): Becoming/Dis-Becoming Writing Teachers

classwarfare1At the 2013 Conference of College Composition and Communication (4Cs) in Las Vegas, I had the opportunity to be part of a workshop designed by Shannon Carter, Deborah Mutnick, and Steve Parks.  It was a fruitful workshop that centered real dialogue … while also producing more than just dialogue.  On one of the panels during the workshop, Kurt Spellmeyer asked us to contextualize and trouble our academic identities and positions as the Professional-Managerial Class (PMC).  Part of his discussion focused on Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich’s 1977 essays in Radical America called “The Professional Managerial Class” and then later,  “The New Left: A Case Study in Professional-Managerial Class Radicalism.”  Their current extension/revision of that work is called “Death of a Yuppie Dream: The Rise and Fall of the Professional-Managerial Class.”    Marc Bousquet, at a later point in the workshop, pushed us to see that no radical activity or revolution will come from the professoriate; otherwise, we would have seen that already.  He urged us, instead, to see ourselves as and act as a working class, which would mean a class consciousness where we work, radically so, in our own class interest.

“Death of a Yuppie Dream” frames analysis of current modes of capitalist production, mass consumption, and neoliberalism.   Here we are talking about our current social circumstance where once autonomous professionals, the Professional Managerial Class, the PMC (doctors, engineers, lawyers, professors, etc), who have been defined by specialized knowledge and standards, now experience corporate domination and exploitation rather than the private autonomous spaces that once defined their work.  While the PMC often acted as a kind of buffer between vulgar consumption, profits, and exploitation, the PMC has also been its own worst enemy— basically, a buncha sell-outs.  Today, the PMC has been downgraded (i.e., more adjunct hiring than tenure track professors), absorbed into corporations (i.e., HMOs, large corporate law firms vs. private practice), and has faced serious decline (i.e., the dearth of journalism jobs). Meanwhile, a new kind of complex, multi-tiered management system exists to control labor, high-tech machinery, and consumer culture where the new PMC, especially the high-paid managers (i.e., upper level administration/managers), look more like CEOs than the autonomous professionals of the past.  The Ehrenreichs convincingly show that the PMC became “the rationalizers of society” who conflicted with capitalists but who also positioned themselves away from and, often, in opposition to the working class that they fully exploited.  The Ehrenreichs also want to point out to the PMC that we are as dispensable to capitalism as the factory workers ousted from assembly lines for “third world” labor exploitation.   In other words: what the hell are we holding on to this system for?  The Ehrenreichs helped me to see and understand the kind of cultural logic that I see operating in college writing programs in this particular moment much better.

I am still often shocked at how readily faculty, those on the tenure-track who have made it into the PMC, will themselves advocate for the most corporate structures to mechanize writing and writing programs:

  1. one, standard syllabus that everyone can implement across a hierarchy of adjuncts, graduate students, junior faculty, and senior faculty;
  2. a set of standards/tests/assessments to ensure that students master exactly the kind of PMC logic that the Ehrenreichs criticize— discipline, appropriate academic curiosities, and “bureacratic modes of communication”;
  3. common assignments to be measured across one numerical system so that #2 can be automated more smoothly.

These mechanisms are not about education; they are the cultural logic of  mass production and consumption. The idea that conversation and dialogue with colleagues can produce consensus and community may as well be a foreign language and concept in this iteration of the PMC’s co-signing of automated/techno-regulated systems.  When it comes to under-represented college students of color in these systems, well there’s just no way for there to be a happy ending here.  Faculty of color really have no business being on board with these cultural logics when, at best, their focus on cultures and diversity will only be commodified, the new 21st century Booker T.’s, a fact that shouldn’t surprise given that bodies of color are always for sell across historically varied modes of capitalist production.

In true, sell-out fashion, the PMC becomes exactly the kind of “rationalizers” of capitalism that the Ehrenreichs critique with this mantra, ad infinitum: we are only being realistic. If the teaching of writing can be so “realistically” and simply automated, measurable, standardized, and replicated across multiple spaces, then why do we need full-time teachers… or teachers at all?  The ironic thing is that if the PMC does not turn against its own exploitation and begin to irrationalize capitalism and corporate, mass-automation, we only make ourselves more obsolete.  It seems true then that the lack of a class consciousness means you only undermine your own fool self.

Remembering Baba Asa Hilliard/Revising Race & Composition Studies

Since the early dawn (and, maybe, well before then), I have been revising an article about assessment that focuses on racially subordinated students of color.  My original version was only partially received (if that) and so I was offered pages of suggestions for revision and re-submission of the piece.  Though many of the suggestions were problematic, the revisions that really moved me rested on me going back to reread what I had learned from Baba Asa as a high school teacher and, for that, I am grateful and newly inspired.  That inspiration was probably what prompted me to write the letter that I did to the editor.

I took the suggestions offered to me by one reviewer and incorporated those that matched my politics and, well, discarded all of the rest, offering the editor an explanation for why.  I am indebted to Jaime Mejía for challenging me to articulate to editors how and why my political perspectives diverge before I simply write white folk off and then go and submit my work to journals that have an anti-racism platform.   Jaime seems to believe in my voice and ideas and wants me to inject that everywhere.  Regardless of what happens with this journal, I do feel good about following Jaime’s advice and stating my piece/peace.  As stank as this might be, I am going to share that letter to the editor openly here (without, of course, naming the journal— I ain’t that stank) and list the Hilliard texts that have carried me through the morning and afternoon today.

Hilliard, Asa G. (1990). Back to Binet: The case against the use of IQ tests in the schools. Contemporary Education. 61, 4, 184-9.
Hilliard, Asa G. (1995). Either a paradigm shift or no mental measurement: The Non-science and non-sense of the bell curve. Psych Discourse. 76, 10, 620.
Hilliard, Asa G. (1984). IQ testing as the emperor’s new clothes: a Critique of bias in mental testing,” in C. Reynolds, ed. Perspectives on Bias in Mental Testing. New York: Plenum.
Hilliard, Asa G. (1989). Kemetic (Egyptian) historical revision: Implications for cross cultural evaluation and research in education.” Evaluation Practice 10, 2, 7-23.
Hilliard, Asa G. (1988). Misunderstanding and testing intelligence,” in John Goodlad and Pamela Keating, eds. Access to Knowledge. New York: The College Board, 145-157.
Hilliard, Asa G. (1998). The Standards movement: Quality control or decoy? Rethinking Schools: An Urban Educational Journal Online, 12, 4.
Hilliard, Asa G. (1987). Testing African American students.” Special Issue of the Negro Education Review. 38, 2 and 3 (Republished 1995, by Chicago: Third World Press.)
Hilliard, Asa G. (1975). The Strengths and weaknesses of cognitive tests for young children.” in J. D Andrews, ed. One Child Indivisible. Washington: DC: National Foundation for the Education of Young Children.
Hilliard, Asa G. (1994). What Good is this thing called intelligence and why bother to measure it? Journal of Black Psychology, 20, 4, 430-444.

So here is my letter….hopefully, this letter will make sense though the article that it references is not part of this post.  In writing this letter, like I said, I really see what it means to have behind the-scenes conversations that force in our perspectives.  Here is my first attempt at doing so (I removed the list at the end of the revision letter that details the line changes I made):

Dear _____ (name removed),

Thank you for this thoughtful review.  It was very helpful in re-framing my thinking.  Some of the points I agreed with, some of them I found quite divergent of my own politics and experiences with race, education and language (and most radical educators of color, for that matter).  I thought I would re-submit my revised text, though it may not be what you are looking for, before I submitted the piece elsewhere.  Here are my responses:

I certainly believe the issues of Black English and code-meshing are absolutely critical and central to my own work.  However, those issues are not the focus of this text.  I removed many sentences from my text that deploy Black English such as: …they ain’t kids no more; …the principal and her cronies were not down; I removed the words fool-ass and fool-ass mess (though this is arguably not a central feature of Black English; instead, I refer to the individual in question as a white woman to make my claims of racism sharper and less politically polite than simply calling her a fool since she was more than just that).  I left a few Black English phrases in my text like: “those ain’t my people or my allies.”  I want the weight of belonging to an alternative teaching tradition than what white, bourgeois culture offers to carry the moment and so I allow my language to do that in the hopes that there will be readers outside of the white bourgeoisie who will also connect to me and that tradition.  I include this point in a footnote.

More to the point maybe is that a few sentences that minimally deploy Black English can’t really qualify this as a text that fully deploys the code-meshing that Young and Canagarajah are theorizing or the practices of translingualism or cross-language relations that Horner and Lu advocate.  While these theories as they relate to assessment are vital, my essay certainly cannot be the standard for that kind of writing— it’s just not good enough to be that kind of writing.  I am concerned here because if my writing seems to enact code-meshing, then we have so far to go in dismantling Anglo-English linguistic imperialism that the horizon is nowhere in sight.  I am also really clear here that a real understanding of what “Black English” is (terminology which no one hardly even uses anymore) is critically missing from this reviewer’s discussion.  I also find it a bit colonial to ask for a rationale for using my “code-meshing” as if any one register can carry the narratives of people of color— THAT’S MY POINT. If I have to say it, this is not the audience who should be teaching people of color in the 21st century! PERIOD!  This seems to privilege white readers— who do we assume needs this meta-overview of one’s language use? Are your white or standard authors required to offer a meta-narrative of their language use?  I certainly haven’t noticed this in your journal.

It is only a few instances of mainly vocabulary that can be called “Black English” in my text. Because the few markers that I did use were so noticeable as to warrant such attention (a page-long discussion by the reviewer), I have removed those vocabulary words for the sake of clarity.   I, however, did not remove my subject-driven racial analyses as a person of color in a white university system that has had little success in retaining racially subjugated communities— students or teachers. This means that many readers might regard my narrative style as an African Americanized one but that is not an argument anyone should make since it could not possibly result in anything other than claims of essentialism: there is no one, quintessential African American style, quite obviously.   I also did not belabor the opening narrative more than a few, added paragraphs for clarity— readers will simply need to do some extra work here and not expect to be spoon-fed simply because I use narrative in spaces that do not value it as an academic form.

For my own part, in terms of research on code-meshing, I simply don’t have a dog in that race. Because I am referencing work that I did in the early 90s as part of a progressive school reform movement, it obviously wasn’t theories related to code-meshing that shaped what we did in those CES schools (this should be clear in the ways that I included discussions about Baba Asa Hilliard).  In terms of my “blended/bended” writing style, I root that in my work as a black feminist teacher and researcher— also work I have done since I first read Patricia Hill Collins in the 90s.  I think it is up to the scholars who focus on work in code-meshing to show how what they are doing is new in terms of critical literacy, anti-racist pedagogy, and culturally valid assessment.  Like I said, I don’t have a dog in that race (I haven’t needed to) and the work that I have been doing isn’t rooted in code-meshing paradigms.  All of this really points to my larger argument: namely that we have no real or progressive connection to educators of color who have offered dynamic classrooms to students of color for decades now without needing the rather esoteric conversations that mostly white compositionists imagine to be central. Frankly, I found the revision requests related to code-meshing to be incredibly reductive and wholly problematic in ways that will require me to write a whole other article.

I was inspired by the reviewer’s reminder that I see assessment as a practice that can maintain literacy as white property.  I think this is brilliant.  However, I did not explicitly examine that here because of space restraints (I never used those words).  To fully engage that concept means that I would have to go back to early canonical works in CRT (critical race theory), particularly Cheryl Harris’s work, otherwise I would run the risk of merely co-opting CRT tropes.  I didn’t want to do that and couldn’t find a way or space to incorporate whiteness as property here.  That kind of work merely makes CRT a commodity vs. the theoretical force and social justice foundation that it is. You simply cannot reference whiteness as property outside of or without CRT.  This should actually be standard policy for this journal and all others!

Based on the reviewers’ request to address literacy as a white property and issues of code-meshing, I did, however, insert what I think is critical information about Nateca’s expression “well, if you was listenin” to the white woman in the audience who questioned all of the students’ competence. I treat Nateca’s language as African American rhetoric, however, a crucial issue for what really interests me with writing assessment— the erasure of ethnic rhetorical competency.  Here is what I said about Nateca:

I offer this narrative about Nateca because it shows how this assessment landscape offered the possibility for African American rhetoric (signifyin, tonal semantics, directness, call-and-response, verbal markers of African American Language) to critique and shift the political discourse of that space while simultaneously garnering the very animated support of a large, working class community of color (this room was filled with at least 70 bodies).  In sum, Nateca shifted the gaze of assessment from white to black.

That should clarify my point as succinctly as I can make it.


And with that… I submitted the letter, uploaded the new, revised essay, and decided upon a next journal where I will submit this piece once the editor makes her final decision (I assume she will not budge from the reviewer’s suggestions and I will, indeed, look elsewhere for a publication venue)!