“We have to do better”: Another state-sponsored jeremiad

Because I’m a permanently certified 7-12 ELA teacher in NY, I recently received an email from NYSED Commissioner John King, Jr. introducing EngageNY.org, a “one-stop shop for resources related to New York’s Race to the Top Reforms” and the Common Core Standards for various educators: teachers, of course, but also principals, administrators, and researchers. While King’s email reads like an honest, direct appeal, it’s also fairly predictable: “we” have to get better at educating our students in order to prepare them for college and careers.”If we want New York to be competitive in the global marketplace” he argues, “[w]e have to do better.” While he concedes that educators have heard all this before and promises that the State will provide further support beyond EngageNY.org, it doesn’t deter him from ushering the state’s primary mission:

“…the longer we delay, the more students we deny the opportunity for success. Tough times demand hard work. The best way out of these tough times is to build a workforce ready to take on the economic challenges of the global economy. If we slow down reform, we’ll shut down opportunity for millions of our students.

I’ve been on this list for close to eight years, and I can’t remember a time when I’ve received anything else from it, so it was bit jarring to receive it just before Thanksgiving. It was also a useful coincidence that I read Linda Adler-Kassner‘s book The Activist WPA (2008) and Skyped with her the previous week for CCR 632.

The Activist WPA begins from the premise that literacy is often framed in ways that position students, instructors or WPAs as deficient. In essence, it says: “we have to do better.” That frame has been deployed via a 100+ year-old narrative structure called the progressive pragmatic jeremiad: a trope that started with Dewey and other early American education philosophers which claims that critical intelligence is necessary for an effective democracy. Without literacy, the jeremiad goes, our nation is doomed. Over time this jeremiad has been co-opted by less and less progressive interests and has given way to “beltway consensus.” That is, nationally sanctioned narratives such as No Child Left Behind, The Spellings Report, and Achieve’s Ready or Not has shifted agency away from local educators; national, private assessment firms, such as ETS, and other technocrats assume to know what students need to learn, based on a list of elite thinkers and multiple choice tests. In many cases, districts are forced to comply to the agendas of these bodies in order to access funding, such as Race for the Top.

The appropriate response from literacy activists, argues LAK, is to do two things: (1) know our own principles — which surface through personal narratives — and (2) to organize/strategize to advocate for those principles (hence, the “activist WPA”). She revisits a quote from legal realist scholar Karl Llewellyn: “Strategies without ideals is a menace, but ideals without strategies is a mess [sic].” LAK offers up three strategies for WPAs in terms of this argument. She attributes each approach to different informants:

Interest-based organizing, AKA grassroots work, extends the work of one of the most famous community organizers, Saul Alinsky. With interest-based organizing, issues emerge from relationships that are fostered through dialogue at relational meetings. Such issues are readily definable, meaning they are actionable: “something you can do something about.” They are different from problems which “are so large as to overwhelm action” (Chambers qtd in LAK 100).

Values-based organizing is the most academic, long-term strategy that comes from linguist George Lakoff; it seeks to address the ways in which language determines how an issue is framed: “shaping the message, setting out the terms for discussion, [and] determining the direction” (107) of the conversation. “Through language,” LAK notes, “values-based organizers believe people can discover and articulate the values at the core of their central beliefs” (110). In order to successfully deploy this strategy organizers must identify their own values (or their Writing Program’s), identify others who share those values, and “[develop frames that reflect values, and [use] those frames to shape issues” (113). Essential to this model is for organizers and participants to argue for what they want, not for what they do not want. The bears repeating for most academics.

Issue-based organizing is borrowed from the late MN Senator Paul Wellstone’s political campaigns; it blends the previous two approaches in that organizers start from a political agenda and build community from key issues from that agenda; the issue is often extended so that values become explicit and new issues can be tackled: campaigns “involve moving from short-term goals (tactics) within the contexts of longer-term ones (strategies)” (118).

Four common steps unites these three approaches. First, each of them begins with organizers identifying their principles, regardless of whether the issue requires a tactic or a strategy. Next is using those principles to establish goals and allies. Third, all use a dialogic approach to action. Finally, each approach is designed to develop community through self-interest. As LAK argues, the smart organizer would “mix and phase” these three models, “depending on the needs of the community and the demands of particular projects” (127).

It’s interesting for me to reflect on the my leadership with the Writing Center in light of some of the details of The Activist WPA. I found myself wondering which approaches were most successful (or could have been) in revitalizing the Center and to what degree I was really an “activist” since I never really felt like one. During our Skype conversation with LAK that week, we asked her about the difference between those terms. “Organizers,” she said, “develop strategies to become activists. I’m very much about organizing, and organizing for change. And I think when you organize for change that makes you more than an organizer” (thanks, @ahhitt for helping me get that right). I always felt that my institutional role as a staff member was to play supportive organizer to the larger Writing Program, not to engage as an activist (which implies disruption and antagonism). I asked LAK about how these roles might limit certain kinds of change. She acknowledged that hierarchies will always affect this kind of work (“the academy is second only to the military in terms of hierarchical structure,” she added).

But the more I think about, perhaps my definition of activist is too dramatic. Through dialogue with many stakeholders, our Center was able to convince the Writing Program to create a permanent, standing Writing Center committee in our Program. The committee led us to led to articulate principles and outcomes, to conduct SWOT analyses of various constituents, and perhaps most timely, gather effective assessment data. We created two new online services that boosted access to our services, embedded a consultant in the community, and began to put staff members in regular dialogue with each other through recurring meetings. People know change is rough, change is hard, but it’s also slow and takes place over time.