“I also understand that as we put into practice an education that critically provokes the learner’s consciousness, we are necessarily working against the myths that deform us. As we confront such myths, we also face the dominant power because those myths are nothing but the expression of this power, of its ideology.” -Paulo Freire, Teachers as Cultural Workers
“Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive.” -Joe Kincheloe, Critical Pedagogy Primer
It is 2018 in the U.S., what I have dubbed Trumplandia, and Nike has unveiled a 30-year celebration of their “Just Do It” campaign featuring, among other athletes, former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. This move has reignited the political frenzy over NFL players protesting during the National Anthem racially inequitable policing in the country—including the seemingly endless ire of President Donald Trump.
Nike’s ad campaign highlights Kaepernick’s sacrifice for his activism while being a high-profile athlete. Kaepernick has found himself alienated from the NFL for a couple of years, leading him to file a law suit charging collusion against NFL owners. The Nike ad campaign has drawn the same set of critics—Trump and his conservative supporters—but it has also added a public debate (not always sincere, however) about what exactly constitutes sacrifice.
Some have chosen to use the death of former NFL star Pat Tillman, who left his professional career to join the military and who consequently lost his life to friendly fire. Tillman’s family has pointedly rejected this argument, but the controversy none the less does raise a problem about the nature of both personal sacrifice and activism. As a teacher and writer, I am once again plagued with a question: Are teaching and writing activism?
Teaching and Writing as Activism
In the past several years in the U.S., from Fergusonto Bree Newsome’s removing the Confederate battle flagfrom statehouse grounds in South Carolina, the public in the U.S. has had to confront the power and tensions with activism. The activism connected with race and racism across the nation also prompted for me a question about what exactly counts as activism as well as what are our moral obligations when faced with bigotry, racism, sexism, homophobia, and all forms of oppression.
To do nothing, to strike the “I’m not political” pose, we must admit, is itself a political act, one that tacitly reinforces the status quo of oppression and inequity. To proclaim “I don’t see race” is to be complicit in the very racism those who claim not to see race pretend to be above.
Activism broadly is taking action for change, and despite the cultural pressure that teachers somehow stand above activism and politics, despite the perception that writing is not action, both teaching and writing are types of activism—although each of us who are teachers and writers has decisions about how that looks in our own careers and lives. In the U.S., formal education (public K-12 and even higher education) are primarily about reinforcing cultural narratives and norms. At the K-12 level of government schools, in fact, teaching is highly scripted and monitored. As an antithesis to that, for me, the urge to teach and write is grounded in confronting a world that is incomplete, inadequate, and then calling for a world that could be.
More than a decade after I began teaching high school English, I discovered critical pedagogy and social reconstructionism during my doctoral program—and was able to place my muddled and naive efforts at teaching-as-activism into a purposeful context. As a K-12 teacher, I always held tight to the autonomy of my classroom to do what was right by my students—usually against the grain of the school and the community, and often in ways that were threatening to my career. The curriculum we offer our students and the pedagogy we practice are activism for change if we embrace that call; to remain apolitical, however, is a type of activism for the status quo.
I embraced the call for activism for change. Instead of the prescribed textbook and reading list, I augmented what my students read and pushed each year to change, to expand the required reading lists to include women and writers of color. My first quarter of American literature began with Howard Zinn’s reconsideration of the Columbus discovering America myth and then built on adding Margaret Fuller to the traditional examination of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.
The second half of that first quarter focused on Gandhi’s non-violent non-cooperation as well as an expanded sub-unit of black thought—including Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. We considered whose voice matters, and why, along with complicating the often oversimplified presentation of MLK as the only black voice in U.S. history. In the 1980s and 1990s of rural upstate South Carolina, these texts and conversations were rare and hard for my students, resisted and rejected by the community (my birth town), and challenging for me as a becoming-teacher. And much of this I did badly despite my best intentions.
Beyond my classroom, as department chair throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I worked to de-track our English classes as much as possible (reducing the levels from 4 to 3), but also ended the practice of multiple texts per grade level that in effect labeled our students walking down the hallways. Students were in different levels by ability (advanced, honors, and general were our labels) and then had different texts books that marked them by levels. The problem with this system is it was mostly about socio-economic status (more so than ability) and created inequitable and different educational experiences for students—determining in many ways those students’ futures.
I also had the department stop issuing grammar and vocabulary texts to all students, moving those texts to resources for teachers who wished to use them. At that time, I did not think of that teaching as activism, however.So I share all this not to pat myself on the back, but to acknowledge now how our teaching can—and I would argue must—be activism. To detail what teaching-as-activism looks like in the day to day.
I share also to note that when working within the system as it is handed to us, we are being political in that we are complicit when we passively work as agents of practices that are a disservice to our students, and ourselves. Activism is teaching for that which we want to be and thus against that which we witness as wrong. None of this is easy or comfortable. I recognize in hindsight that to work against the system has real costs, even if we do not lose our jobs, which of course serves no one well.
My journey to embrace writing as activism was much slower developing, but along the way I have shifted much of my energy toward public work because I believe that also to be activism—raising a voice in the pursuit of change, putting one’s name behind words that challenge. But it is the writing as activism that gives me greater pause because writing is a solitary and often isolated thing (although teaching is often a profession in which we are isolated from each other, and fail in teaching in solidarity because of that dynamic). My dual vocations as teacher/writer are significantly impacted by my privilege (being a man and white) as well as the perceptions that teaching is not/should not be political and that writing is not really putting one bodily into the fray.
Thus, my commitment lies in setting aside paternalistic urges, working beside and not for, and seeking ways in which my unearned privilege can be used in the service of others who are burdened by inequity. Some activism is grounded in imposing onto other groups what is determined for them, thus driven by missionary zeal. The activism I embrace is about grounding ones privilege in service by asking those with less privilege or those suffering oppression what they need and want, what is denied them because of that oppression. (See here.)
As teachers and writers, are we activists, then?
I say that we can be, that we must be. But how that looks is ours to decide; grand and small, our impact on the world is in our daily actions, our daily words. And I am always, always anchored in my high school classroom, where my efforts to open the world to my students, to foster in them a belief that the world can be different, the world can be better were often subtly taped to my wall—the words of Henry David Thoreau: “Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it.” And:“A man has not everything to do, but something; and because he cannot do everything, it is not necessary that he should do something wrong.”
I think to be a teacher is to confront our doubts, to break through the stigma we may feel about our desire to make a difference, to change the world, to be activists. These doubts and these callings are shared by writers as well, I believe. Yes, teaching and writing are activism, activism we should be proud to own.
What, Me Blog?
Scholarly writing, however, poses another level to the problem of activism. Traditional scholarship often suffers the same burden of notbeing political, but it also tends to rest behind pay walls or remains accessible in other ways only to a small insular group—other scholars. While of course traditional scholarship can be, and often is, a form of activism (a call for change, large or small), it may not have the broad appeal or range that public writing can. For scholars, writing as activism often includes a need to be a public intellectual, publishing public work as well as expanding into social media, such as blogging.
Venturing into the virtual world of blogging (and Twitter) as a scholar, academic, or teacher/professor requires you to address a few foundational questions. Here are some of those decisions with examples from a variety of blogs addressing my field of education:
- Blogging allows the blogger to create a public persona. What persona do you want to present to the public?Some in education highlight their roles as teachers while others highlight their scholarship—some, of course, blend those roles. Katie Osgood, @KatieOsgood_, maintains a passionate blog, emphasizing her persona as a teacher. Nancy Flanagan, @nancyflanagan, blogging at Teacher/Education Week, speaks as a veteran teacher in her blogs. Julian Vasquez Heilig’s popular and high-quality blog is primarily scholarly work made accessible and strongly political (@ProfessorJVH).
- Part of that persona creation includes an important blogging decision: Will you blog under your name or a pseudonym?Two bloggers who have debated this issue on Twitter are Jersey Jazzman, @jerseyjazzman, (pro-pseudonym and primarily a blogger addressing statistics and research while also being strongly political) and Jose Vilson, @TheJLV (an advocate for blogging under his name and speaking from the classroom as a teacher). Also see this excellent self-revealing piece from EduSchyster (@EduShyster) addressing her move from a pseudonym to posting under her real name.
- Blogging (and Twitter) are also platforms for extending the role of teacher into your work as a public intellectual. If the goal of blogging is to teach a wider public, then another important decision is, What level of discourse will drive your blogging?Many academic disciplines and fields include complex ideas and field-specific language. Translating those complexities in public blogs is a daunting task. However, blogging allows you to include hyperlinks, which in turn provide readers extensions to your discussion that provide context and richer examinations of issues than the typical blog can address (when a blog remains in the range of about 750-1250 words). Hyperlinking is a craft in itself that includes a scholar’s ethic of highlighting representative evidence, thus never cherry picking.
- Running through many of these decisions is a debate about tone: What tone and what level of civility will you honor in your blog?That question works within assumptions about scholarship (traditionally reserved for peer-reviewed journals) and blogging (often viewed negatively as frivolous and notscholarly). To blog, then, as a scholar, you must practice traditional scholarly standards in a more accessible format, building your credibility along the way. Two outstanding scholarly blogs represent fairly distinct answers to that problem. Matthew DiCarlo, @shankerinst, represents some of the best scholarship online that is both meticulous and accessible; the blogs are highly instructive, but DiCarlo is all-business (his one attempt at satire blew up in his face and he lamented the shift in tone on Twitter). Bruce Baker, @SchlFinance101, offers a very similar blog in terms of content, providing the public highly detailed statistical analyses as well as reviews of high-profile education research. But Baker is often satirical and sarcastic, even in his headlines. While DiCarlo is balanced to a fault, Baker wears his agendas on his sleeve.
- A final point: Will you blog at your own platform (such as WordPressor blogger) or do you want to associate yourself with an online blogging publication such as Daily Kos? The tensions between these options include how much traffic you want and can generate as well as how independent you want your persona to be.
These are all practical matters, but I also feel the move from traditional scholar to public intellectual (and blogger) confront us with a few other key issues. Traditional scholarship is too often inaccessible because of gated publication, discipline-specific terminology and jargon, and text length; however, traditional scholarship has some strong qualities as well—ethical obligations about citation, high bars for research quality, and expectations for fair representation of terms, evidence, and ideologies.
My final point, then, is not only that scholars need to move to public work, including blogging. But all writers on public platforms must also infuse their writing as activism with the same high standards common within traditional scholarship. For example, while scholarship often includes literature reviews and extensive reference lists, bloggers may focus on one or two vivid pieces of research, requiring that the public scholar avoid cherry picking and misrepresenting the body of research. Also, public work such as blogging lends itself to hyperlinking as the form of citation; this is far more accessible for the public, but it also places a high demand on the public scholar/blogger to link to representative and high-quality on-line texts.
Teaching and writing are powerful forms of activism; the public intellectual role can blend these avocations when scholars and teachers choose to write for the wider public, including taking the step of blogging. All of these forms of activism are ethical decisions with high bars for ethical behavior—none of which should be taken lightly.
It is 2018 in the U.S., and while some of the bluster is insincere and some of the incredulity is a veneer for raw racism and blind white nationalism, the Nike ad campaign has interjected an important debate about what counts as sacrifice, especially for those who are activists. The mistake with that debate is forcing that we choose between Kaepernick and Tillman, that we oversimplify what counts as sacrifice or activism.
As a teacher and writer, I must resist those who would frame my teaching and writing as not doing anything because I am not demonstrating in the street, or directly placing myself in harm. Our words are taking risks, and to teach, to write is to seek a new and better world.
Teaching and writing are activism.
P.L. Thomas, professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville, SC, USA), has taught high school English as well as first-year writing and education at the university level. He blogs, is active on social media, and has authored Trumplandia: Unmasking Post-Truth America(Garn Press 2017) and Teaching Writing as Journey, Not Destination: Essays Exploring What “Teaching Writing” Means(IAP, in press).