Tag Archives: politics

matthewboedy

Professing While Teaching

This post is written by member Matthew Boedy. 

As is usual in first-year composition, I assigned a research project to my students. In a course I titled The Rhetoric of Higher Education this semester, I proposed to my students that they embark on a research agenda of an issue affecting higher education.

Some of the perennial subjects showed up in student choices: student loan debt, tuition increases, paying student athletes, and “safe spaces.” These were all subjects I put on the syllabus. I listed on the syllabus other issues such as academic freedom, the role of the humanities, and the ways in which colleges have branded themselves. I provided a few readings for each topic, and we spent a week discussing each subject. Many of these sources showed up in the final papers, though many students had other, better sources.

I also strategically scheduled a week on the syllabus for an issue I have been involved in: the fight to prevent allowing guns on college campuses. I deliberately put that issue on the syllabus on the same day I also assigned the first step in the research process, hoping students would claim that issue.

For two years I have written (most recently here) and spoken against bills in our state legislature that would give those age twenty-one and older permission to carry a concealed, permitted weapon on campus, albeit in limited areas. That advocacy has gotten me placed on a conservative “professor watchlist” (I won’t link to it), some indirect pushback from my administration, and not a few insulting online comments.

My syllabus scheme was somewhat successful. About twenty of my sixty students chose “campus carry” as their research project. Why did they? In my class, at my university, and in my state, the overwhelming majority of students (not to mention faculty and staff) are against guns on campus. So I assume that those who chose to write about it did so because they share that opinion. But a few students chose to argue in favor of the idea. In Georgia we have a strong “gun culture” and a state law that allows concealed weapons in most public places, though not college campuses.

Of course, the question of grading comes up. Do those students writing in favor of guns think I am biased? I am never sure. I probably hold those who agree with me to a higher standard, checking more closely their sources and arguments even in the last, rushed days of the semester.

Some might argue that if I am doing my job correctly, it doesn’t matter whether students think I am biased. To these people, the question is whether I can set aside my personal bias to grade fairly, given the assignment and expectations for citations and conclusions.

But this issue is not merely one of personal bias for me. I cannot set aside my conclusion that campus carry is dangerous. And what is fair here? In student assessment, it is not a simple matter of presenting evidence to back up conclusions. It is also a matter of credibility, audience, and ethics.

For example, students in my class who favor campus carry, echoing sources they have read, point out that my school already has guns (we have the usual campus police and we are a military school, though my particular campus does not house military personnel). They transition from this point to champion campus carry by concluding we should not fear guns at all because we don’t fear those other guns. Yet this is a weak argument because it is a non sequitur. The comparison is not apples-to-apples, because military and police weapons are handled by well-trained individuals and securely locked away when not. I discount the paper that makes this argument.

On the other hand, those students who agree with me and who quote my work in their essays sometimes don’t quote me well, and I discount them for that. And here “well” means using my information to make their own claim, not merely summarizing my points.

Overall, in class I seek to give all students the opportunity to practice their thinking and show them ways to do that well. In doing that through the topic of campus carry, I aim to provide national context (each state’s version of this bill is different), historical context (the rise of such bills since 2008), and the importance of stakeholders and audience (I stress to students that I am their reader, not their audience). I hope this experience has taught them that nothing we do in the classroom – especially any type of literacy instruction – is free from politics.

This assignment was a teaching moment for them but also a learning moment for me. I continually have to learn how to be political without, well, being political. The question for me this semester has been how to balance my advocacy and my teaching. And whether “balance” is the right metaphor. I don’t feel I have to mention a claim from “each side” when I bring up the issue.

But I did make sure that the readings I included on the syllabus for the week we spent examining campus carry were about equal in number for each side. While I did not fact-check every claim in the pro-gun sources, I knew many would be rebutted the next class period by readings from those against guns on campus. I also did not disparage the pro-gun sites in general. (I used links from the NRA and groups committed to campus carry in my state. On my side, I used some of my work, the governor’s veto from last year’s version of this bill, a survey from another university conducted by the student government association that showed 70% opposed, and a tweet from REM front man Michael Stipe, who was among a handful of celebrities from Georgia to announce their opposition.)

I made clear my position in class while also suggesting that those on “the other side” were sincere and informed, to be taken seriously. Yet not every claim made in this debate is accurate and ethical. A question for my students is who to believe on this issue. There are many voices and I am one, but I am a voice with built-in credibility and authority. And so with great power comes great responsibility. In that vein, I invited two state legislators into my class – two gun rights advocates who not only voted for the bill but who also represent my students and me.

I decided before the legislators came that I would not interrupt or speak in opposition during their time in my class. I did not want the class to become a debating ground between me and them; this was for the students. I thought any dissension from me would create unneeded discomfort. I wanted to show some civility and give the legislators room to make their case. I did not fear they would convince students, as I knew my side also had compelling arguments. And the legislators used many different types of appeals to convince the class – mainly invention strategies we had talked about in class during this semester. It was helpful for students to see effective rhetoric at work.

During the Q&A period after the presentation, one student asked about the lack of training required to get a concealed weapons permit in our state. The legislators encouraged any permit holder to get training. Another student questioned why there was a need for guns after a law passed last year allowing Tasers and stun guns on campus. The legislators suggested those devices would not help those physically weaker.

Then the legislators argued that there was a massive crime increase on some campuses in our state. I stayed quiet, knowing these stats were misleading. But the next class day I felt compelled to provide needed context to the statistics the legislators cited. I praised parts of what the legislators said (they effectively used enthymemes and had a credible personal history with guns, for example). Then I pointed out what the FBI says about crime stats: using one number in a narrow way as they did is not prudent. Then I pointed to contradictory numbers put out by the same university the legislators quoted. Then I showed students how some universities in the same state report crimes that happened in places they can’t verify, i.e., off campus.

Finally I asked my students how we decide which numbers to use. One student responded that we use the ones that best fit our case. I cried a pox on both our houses, because many people in this debate do this. So I asked, in a larger context, how do we frame statistics? Students provided few answers within some awkward silence – perhaps the first time they had ever been asked to grapple seriously with the question.

I ended the conversation talking about the connection between facts and who presents them, how pathos appeals are intertwined with statistics, and how our literacy practices are fraught with complexities. Then I told students that I can’t and won’t tell them what to write. I can only put them in situations where they try out rhetorical strategies I have taught and so create credibility for themselves as writers. This is illuminating a path to learning, not necessarily a teaching of composition. This point is worth making in a political climate in which so many think we professors (especially in the humanities) bar or demean certain student opinions. It is also worth advocating for the asking of important questions. And the silent struggle to understand.

Dr. Matthew Boedy is an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric of Composition at the University of North Georgia in Gainesville, Ga. He teaches sections of First Year Composition and advanced professional writing courses. 

What Challenges Might We Embrace, and How?

This guest post is from James Davis, NCTE’s P12 policy analyst from Iowa. 

These are challenging times for teachers of reading, writing, and the arts of language—but then we’ve faced challenging times throughout our 105 year history. I’ve always prized NCTE for its unity in diversity.

Doug Hesse, in a November 12, 2016, post in NCTE’s Teaching and Learning Forum

My first NCTE Convention occurred in 1968 in Milwaukee, the year that both Martin Luther King Jr and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. It was a buttoned down, formal affair (at least the general and business sessions were) but not without intimations, perhaps prescient moments, that alluded to what was going on in the world outside those walls. Beyond the Convention, and only two years after the Dartmouth Conference, we saw the reappearance of Louise Rosenblatt’s Literature as Exploration and publication of James Moffett’s Teaching the Universe of Discourse plus the Squire & Applebee report High School English Instruction Today.

Most significant to me in that moment, as a third-year high school teacher and new department chair, was a preconvention (in those years, Convention started on Thanksgiving Day) study group who explored emerging high school English elective programs. I met Jim Squire, Ed Farrell, and colleagues from several states with whom I would share subsequent Conventions (our network) for years. I returned to Missouri and led our department in creating our own version of an elective program, characterized and introduced by one senior member as “English Needed a Miniskirt.”

We vaguely realized that our early devotion to learner choice would be difficult to sustain, would need to become increasingly nuanced in our classes—not just of them—and even then, in part a response to leverage toward behavioral objectives, was more political than we knew.

Similarly, apart from convention sessions I attended faithfully (my novice sense of responsibility compounded by limited understanding of the convention genre), serendipitous acquisition of a ticket from Ed Farrell sent me to the Marquette University campus one evening for an advance screening of Charley and bonus audience interaction with the star of the film, Cliff Robertson. A déjà vu moment during his Q&A was special; more important was the film’s attention to mental handicaps, not addressed by federal legislation for another seven years. Of course, I thought of my experiences as professional, not political . . .

In 1969, thanks again to the perks provided a department chair, I enjoyed the NCTE Convention in Washington, DC. My preconvention study group in Colonial Williamsburg, VA, offered first-hand exposure to early American literature’s backgrounds—lectures in the morning and tours on our own in the afternoons. Late Wednesday we bused to DC for a quite different NCTE Convention, a “Dreams and Realities” theme, where James Moffett’s address, “Coming on Center,” would rock many of us—the first time, I suspect, I heard a teacher-leader use the phrase military industrial complex!

Immersion in the revolutionary origins and ideals of our country hardly prepared me for Jim’s speech, so compatible with demonstrations by Council members seeking an NCTE resolution against the Vietnam War. NCTE President William Jenkins, who had publicly questioned NCTE becoming a direct political agent in the issue, presided at the business meetings, one of which had to be rescheduled and went into the early morning hours.

New to his role as Executive Secretary (of a Council divided but less diverse than it would become), Bob Hogan struggled to balance consideration for those who abhorred the idea of NCTE taking an overt political position with respectful treatment of those who adamantly, even aggressively expressed opposition to the war and who saw their professional organization as an appropriate agent for change. Ultimately, those assembled passed a resolution in which “the Council officially expresses its abhorrence of the Viet Nam War and its desire to see this divisive conflict ended.”

We were equally unprepared—even by our time at Colonial Williamsburg, though the threads were there—for a powerful CEE luncheon address by Alex Haley. Introduced as a writer for Playboy and of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, “currently working on another book . . .” Haley told the story of his research, of looking for ancestors in property records, and of his journey to Africa, from which he had just returned, to successfully locate his family and tribe.

A silent, awestruck audience followed his tracing through oral history of a few syllables in a native language and at the end gave the most spontaneous and sustained standing ovation of which I have ever been a part. I still ponder what would have occurred if Roots had been published under Haley’s working title, Before This Anger.

I have not thought of NCTE as apolitical since 1969, and in 1970 at the convention in Atlanta, Jenkins said, “NCTE is involved in politics by its very existence.” (Hook, 238) Then (as now?) the question was how and to what extent the Council should purposefully act.

In 1970, President Jim Miller, commenting on continuing confrontations, said they had “jolted organizations out of their smug complacencies and comfortable lethargies,” (Hook, 238) and Council activist Darwin Turner contended, “We must make our voices heard for love and justice, peace and reason.” (Hook, 238)

In the 1970s and since, NCTE has invested in resistance to censorship and of national scapegoating, even then, blaming teachers for educational decline, and of calls for a return to basics. Later, NCTE worked for professional standards, not constraints imposed by business and government.

Recent events pose a need to interpret newly divided constituencies both in and beyond our Council in order to reach students from all families, who are many and diverse.

To navigate this new era we need to engage—what are our common aspirations and how might we resolve differences?

These are the questions we should ask as we look to turn the page.

Hook, J. N. (1979). A long way together. Urbana, IL: NCTE.

Jim Davis began teaching in southwest Missouri as an NCTE and affiliate member, attending his first annual convention in Milwaukee in 1968. Now in his 50th year in our profession, he teaches English education and directs the Iowa Writing Project at the University of Northern Iowa.

Reflections on #nctechat

April #nctechat archiveLast weekend, a spirited discussion ensued during #nctechat on Twitter. With a topic like Politics and Language: Critical Literacy During an Election Year, people are bound to show up and see what others are talking about (you can access the Storify archive here).

From the news media to our own dinner tables, the fear and vitriol that the 2016 election has already churned up has left teachers wondering how they can have productive discussions with their students about the important issues facing our country. But teachers also know that the classroom is where we have a big opportunity to help nurture engaged, responsible citizens. The question is, how do we invite those discussions into our learning community without also inviting resentment and malice towards those with differing viewpoints?

What I saw overwhelmingly in our chat last Sunday was that teachers understand the need to embrace the uncomfortable. That we need to go beyond just  holding mock elections and offering students extra credit to stay up late and watch presidential debates. Instead, we need to look at the ways can critically examine our role as citizens in a democracy – with our students. It’s difficult to do that without discussing controversial and uncomfortable topics.

If you want to see some of the resources and important thoughts that were shared last Sunday, I created my own Storify of takeaways from the chat. I hope you will find some of them both useful and inspiring.

Join us for #nctechat this Sunday

April #nctechat During a presidential election year, it’s always difficult to navigate productive class discussions when politics are involved. Though it can be a volatile topic where emotions run high, as teachers we must also recognize that a sense of civic engagement can and should be nurtured in the classroom. If we want the next generation of citizens to be critical thinkers, school can and should be a place where we have those tough, sometimes uncomfortable conversations with our students.

Join our hosts Frank Baker and Kaitlin Popielarz this Sunday at 8 PM ET on Twitter for #nctechat to discuss Politics and Language: Teaching Critical Literacy in an Election Year.

Here is a preview of the questions for the chat:

  • How do you plan to incorporate the election process & political issues in your subject area?
  • What standards are you hoping to meet by incorporating the election process/political issues in your classroom ?
  • How can you use media in the classroom to teach and discuss political issues?
  • How can we encourage students to critically examine media and political rhetoric?
  • How can you provide opportunities for students to be active in local issues and elections in their own communities?
  • In what ways can we empower our students to speak up on political issues that matter to them?
  • How do we prepare ourselves and our students for discussing important but sometimes volatile issues in the classroom?