12 Winters Blog

Another kind of Trump obstruction

Posted in December 2019, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on December 23, 2019

On December 18, 2019, the House of Representatives impeached Donald Trump on two articles: abuse of power, and obstruction of Congress. The latter was largely based on Trump’s refusal to recognize the House’s authority of oversight, and therefore not turning over requests for documents while also instructing witnesses not to cooperate, including in defiance of legally issued subpoenas (in both instances, regarding documents and witnesses).

Many on the Left (and many on the Right, for that matter) felt that there should have been other articles, including an article for obstruction of justice. Based in large part on Trump’s actions as described in the little-read Mueller Report, over a thousand former federal prosecutors, who served both Democratic and Republican administrations, signed an open letter that stated, “Each of us believes that the conduct of President Trump described in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report would, in the case of any other person not covered by the Office of Legal Counsel policy against indicting a sitting President, result in multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice.” (link)

The purpose of this post is to suggest that there could be a third charge of obstruction added to the list, and this one may be even more insidious than the other two: obstruction of education.

While many schools across the country have used the Trump era as an opportunity for teaching real-world issues, others, especially those located in the heart of Trump country, have become complicit in Trump’s actions — both the illegal ones and the unseemly ones — by not allowing teachers to discuss Trump and Trump-related events with their students. Some have gone so far as to threaten teachers with disciplinary action for pointing out easily verifiable statements of fact about him or his administration.

While classes in history and government may seem the most obvious for discussing Trump and his policies, English, speech, journalism and other communication courses should also be sites of Trump-related analysis, as it is through the manipulation of language that the President and his allies have managed to consolidate and maintain support among nearly half the country (but well beyond half in Trump country).

Perhaps the chief way that the commander-in-chief has retained his followers is through the promulgation of misinformation (i.e. lies). According to The Washington Post, whose fact-checkers have maintained a running list throughout Trump’s presidency, as of Dec. 10, 2019, he had told 15, 413 “untruths.” What is more, the number of false statements has been accelerating, and in 2019 he had made more false claims than in the previous two years. (link)

Between untrue tweets, false statements to the press during his frequent White House lawn gaggles, and utterances to his favorite personalities on Fox News, Trump and the Republican Party have been able to construct an alternate reality that paints Trump as a heroic figure standing against a deep-state conspiracy. Anyone who attempts to cut through the fog of misinformation to reveal a truer picture — journalists, activists, teachers — is a co-conspirator with the deep state.

Never mind that most of Trump’s misdeeds — including the impeachable ones — have been stated or acted out in public. In a downright Orwellian moment, Trump said to a group of veterans on July 24, 2018: “Just stick with us, don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news.… Just remember, what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening …” (link)

In retrospect, it is frightening to see how well Trump’s tactics have worked: his followers literally do not believe what they see and hear themselves. A key element in Trumpian obfuscation has been the erasure of the line between fact and opinion. There are no hard, verifiable facts in Trump world. Everything is an opinion; therefore, his followers can dismiss statements of fact — by educators, for instance — as mere opinions. Then Trump-supporting students, parents (and perhaps even school officials and board of education members) charge teachers with pushing their own opinions on their innocent, doe-eyed students.

Teachers who are trying to share fact-based information with their students are cast as Rasputin-like brainwashers of young minds and therefore silenced, so that even the students from families who do not support President Trump are prevented from considering the ramifications of his presidency. The topic of Trump, in any context, is taboo in the heart of Trump country — which, as it happens, tends to be in the key Midwestern states that Trump must win in 2020.

Many of the students who are prevented from pondering the Trump presidency will be voting age by Election Day in November, making the Trump taboo in the classroom another variation of voter suppression, which the GOP has been using to maintain power for years. In fact, a recently leaked audio recording suggests Republicans will be ramping up their suppression efforts in 2020. Trump adviser Justin Clark told a group of supporters on November 21, 2019, that voter suppression is “going to be a much bigger program, a much more aggressive program, a much better-funded program.” (link)

Again, it is largely through propaganda via social media that the iron curtain has been erected between the distracted public and the true nature of Trump and his presidency. To that end, many schools have added courses, or at least units, that teach students how to navigate spaces like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube to help them avoid falling prey to propaganda and gaslighting. (link)

In fact, professional organizations have officially advocated for this kind of educational experience in particular. In March of 2019, the National Council of the Teachers of English released its “Resolution on English Education for Critical Literacy in Politics and Media.” It reads that the NCTE

  • promote pedagogy and scholarly curricula in English and related subjects that instruct students in civic and critical literacy, going beyond basic reading comprehension to the thinking skills that enable students to analyze and evaluate sophisticated persuasive techniques in all texts, genres, and types of media, current and yet to be imagined;
  • support classroom practices that examine and question uses of language in order to discern inhumane, misinformative, or dishonest discourse and arguments;
  • prioritize research and pedagogies that encourage students to become “critical thinkers, consumers, and creators who advocate for and actively contribute to a better world”;
  • provide resources to mitigate the effect of new technologies and platforms that accelerate and destabilize our information environment;
  • support the integration of reliable, balanced, and credible news sources within classroom practices at all levels of education;
  • resist attempts to influence civic discussion through falsehoods, unwarranted doubts, prejudicial or stereotypical ideas, attempts to shame or silence, or other techniques that deteriorate the quality of public deliberation; and
  • model civic literacy and conversation by creating a supportive environment where students can have an informed discussion and engage with current events and civic issues while staying mindful and critical of the difference between the intent and impact of their language. (link)

I will highlight in particular that English teachers are called upon to “resist attempts to influence civic discussion through falsehoods, unwarranted doubts, prejudicial or stereotypical ideas, attempts to shame or silence, or other techniques that deteriorate the quality of public deliberation.” Trump-supporting students and parents — and school officials who bow down to their pressure by not allowing teachers to discuss with their students current affairs related to President Trump (especially issues related to his impeachment) — are clearly “influenc[ing] civic discussion through … prejudicial ideas … and attempts to shame or silence.” Moreover, school officials who threaten teachers with disciplinary procedures are applying “other techniques that deteriorate the quality of public deliberation.”

It would, of course, be unprofessional and unethical for teachers to employ classroom practices meant to sway young minds — like using grades to reward anti-Trump commentary and punish pro-Trump commentary, or subjecting pro-Trump students to hostility — but it seems that what Trump supporters are afraid of are facts themselves being influential, so therefore teachers must be muzzled, no matter how easily verifiable the facts are, or how publicly Trump laid bare the deeds himself.

Preventing educators from discussing Trump and Trump-related issues with their students via intimidation is textbook fascism, “forcibly suppressing opposition and criticism,” which is part of the first definition at Dictionary.com. Historically, fascists have targeted journalists, writers, educators and intellectuals in general because they share the common characteristic of trafficking in the truth — and truth is the number-one enemy of authoritarians. It must remain veiled at all cost.

A final point I will make is that parents certainly have the right to shield their children from certain topics and specific ideologies, and that is why homeschooling and private schools exist, so that parents who do not support the diverse nature of public schooling can educate their children in another manner. I have no problem with that: it is democratic; it is quintessentially American. But parents should not have the right to turn public schools into private ones by dictating curriculum and classroom practices which impact all students.

When they do (or when they are allowed to do it), it becomes yet another sort of Trump obstruction: the obstruction of education.

The Loss of the Literary Voice and Its Consequences

Posted in July 2019, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on July 23, 2019

The following paper was presented at the MLA International Symposium in Lisbon, Portugal, July 23-25, on “Remembering Lost Voices.” The panel was titled “The Reading Public: Recovering Reader Experiences and Agency.” Other papers were “Recovering the Lost Voices of Nonprofessional Readers” by Tomas Oliver Beebee, Penn State; “Unplugged Reading: Digital Disconnect as a Form of Resistance” by Cátia Ferreira, Católica Portuguesa; and “Recovering Voices Lost: The Reader-Listener as Secondary Witness” by Eden Wales Freedman, Mount Mercy. Helen Groth, New South Wales, served as (impromptu) chair and discussant.


Be forewarned: This paper likely proposes more questions than it offers anything remotely resembling solutions. But as we know framing the proper questions, or framing the questions properly, is a necessary step in any process which hopes to advance some positive effect. Much of this paper is based on the writings and observations of American author William H. Gass (1924-2017), of whom I’ve been a devotee (some may say “disciple”) for a decade. In 1968, at the height of Vietnam War protests, Gass published the essay “The Artist and Society,” in which he states “[naturally] the artist is an enemy of the state . . . [who] is concerned with consciousness, and he makes his changes there.” He goes on to say that “[artful] books and buildings go off under everything—not once but a thousand times” (287, 288). Then Gass asks, “How often has Homer remade men’s minds?” That is, Gass seemed to believe that artists, including literary artists like himself, could have a profound impact on society, enough of an impact to sway governments from one policy position to another, through the sheer force of their art. Reading his words and others’, and taking in other forms of art, could, in fact, alter human consciousness.

Gass of course was hardly alone in this observation, and it may have been believable in 1968 when the Counterculture, led by the United States’ youth and the country’s intellectuals, were reshaping public opinion on the war in Southeast Asia. But changes were already afoot that would undercut the reformative powers of literature, and Gass’s optimism for that matter. In retrospect we can see that many such changes were afoot by the late sixties, but in this paper I want to concern myself chiefly with two: the corporate takeover of the publishing industry, and the coming of age of the Internet and, with it, social media.1

Gass at the podium

Indeed, Gass’s change of heart, from one of optimism to one of pessimism, can be seen in the preface he wrote in 1976 for the re-release of his seminal story collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968): “The public spends its money at the movies. It fills [sports] stadia with cheers; dances to organized noise; while books die quietly, and more rapidly than their authors. Mammon has no interest in their service” (xiii). He continues, “The contemporary American writer is in no way a part of the societal and political scene. He is therefore not muzzled, for no one fears his bite; nor is he called upon to compose” (xviii). So in less than a decade, Gass went from suggesting that literature could remake human consciousness and reform government policy, to believing that serious writing had no impact on society whatsoever.

What the heck happened?

One of the things that happened was the corporate takeover of the publishing industry. The process was largely undocumented when André Schiffrin wrote The Business of Books (2000). “In Europe and in America,” writes Schiffrin, “publishing has a long tradition as an intellectually and politically engaged profession. Publishers have always prided themselves on their ability to balance the imperative of making money with that of issuing worthwhile books” (5). However, in the turbulent sixties, large conglomerates began acquiring publishing houses. Schiffrin continues, “It is now increasingly the case that the owner’s only interest is in making money and as much as possible” (5, emphasis in original). Schiffrin’s study is wide-ranging and thorough, but he focuses particular attention on the demise of Pantheon, where he’d been managing director for a number of years when it was acquired by Random House, which in turn was purchased by media mogul S. I. Newhouse, who inevitably insisted on changes to try to increase profits, unreasonably and unrealistically so, according to Schiffrin: “As one publishing house after another has been taken over by conglomerates, the owners insist that their new book arm bring in the kind of revenue their newspapers, cable television networks, and films do. . . . New targets have therefore been set in the range of 12-15 percent, three to four times what publishing houses have made in the past” (118-19).

Andre Schiffin

Schiffrin documents in detail the mechanisms put in place to try to flog more profits out of the book business, but for our interests perhaps the most fundamental change was the expectation that every title must make a profit, and not just a modest profit. Before the corporate takeover of publishing, it was common practice for publishers to bring out authors’ first books, knowing they would likely lose money and that it may take years and several books before an author found enough of an audience to be profitable. In the meantime, other titles on a publisher’s list could subsidize the nurturing of a new(er) author. A good example is Cormac McCarthy, who is now a household name among readers of contemporary fiction. But McCarthy’s status as an award-winning and best-selling author was a longtime coming. As Daniel Robert King notes in Cormac McCarthy’s Literary Evolution (2016), “Random House took on [in 1965] and retained McCarthy as one of their authors despite unpromising sales over the first twenty years of his career” (23). In fact, McCarthy’s longevity at Random House was due to the loyalty and hardheadedness of his editor Albert Erskine, who insisted that McCarthy’s early titles stay in print in spite of their anemic sales, even in paperback (32-33).

Cormac McCarthy

But such loyalty would come to an end when corporations took over the industry, and editors were pitted against each other to reach ever-increasing profit expectations. Decisions about which titles to acquire, how large the print runs should be, and whether or not a contract should be offered for a second book from an author increasingly became the purview of the accounting and marketing departments, and not editorial. By 1990, corporate publishers only wanted to publish books that warranted 100,000 press runs. Anything less wasn’t worth the effort, according to Marty Asher, with the Book-of-the-Month Club and then Vintage (qtd. in Schiffrin 106). Obviously such bottom-line-minded expectations would make it foolhardy for an editor to take on a first book from just about any author, even a Cormac-McCarthy-to-be.

This emphasis on profit also impacted representations of ideology. By and large, corporations are run by conservatives (think Rupert Murdach), so it hasn’t just been new authors who have been silenced but any author writing from a liberal perspective. For a time, this corporate bias toward conservatism was somewhat offset by university and independent publishers, but they, too, have been impacted by changes in the publishing world, either due to acquisitions or universities which have had to be more money-minded to stay afloat. It is worth noting that André Schiffrin’s book on the demise of independent publishing is nearly twenty years old. On nearly every front things have gotten worse since 2000. Today there are essentially five commercial publishers remaining in the United States, according to Publisher’s Weekly, the so-called “Big Five”: Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette Book Group, and Macmillan (Scholastic is number-six, thanks in large part to their publishing the Harry Potter series) (Milliot). These publishers account for more than eighty percent of sales in the U.S.

All of this has led to a homogenization in publishing. It is fiscally safer to publish book after book by the same few dozen authors (James Patterson, Danielle Steele, Nora Roberts, Dan Brown, etc.) than take a chance on a new voice, or if it is a new author, it’s a new author whose book sounds very much like one that proved successful. The runaway success of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, for example, gave birth to a new genre: “teen paranormal romance,” essentially beautiful but troubled young women falling in love with vampires, werewolves, ghosts, sea monsters, etc.—Prince Charmings, with fangs, fur, chills or gills.

Meanwhile, along came the Internet. Towards the end of Schiffrin’s book on publishing, again, which came out in 2000, he was mildly optimistic that technological advances could be an avenue for worthwhile books to reach readers. In a sense, his optimism was well-founded. The rise of e-readers and print-on-demand books, in both hardcover and paperback, has made it possible for almost anyone to get their words into print. For example, in 2012 I established Twelve Winters Press, a print-on-demand and digital publisher, to produce my own books as well as other worthy books whose authors were frustrated in finding outlets for their work. We’ve averaged four to six titles per year, mainly fiction, but also poetry and children’s books. Our books are available globally and are reasonably priced. Titles have won awards, and one of our books recently won best cover design in the category of fiction.

We’re only missing one element to be considered a rousing success in independent publishing: readers, also known as book sales. Practically no one will read our books. It is extremely difficult to get our books reviewed—and literally impossible to get them reviewed by major reviewers—and when they are reviewed, reviewers seem duty-bound to moderate their praise with some bit of negative criticism. But it probably wouldn’t matter. Even glowing book reviews have little to no impact on sales. Nearly all of the prestigious book competitions are off limits to small, independent publishers. Either their entry fees are too high, or they require a minimum print run that small presses can’t attain. We’ve had some success in indie competitions, but even they are expensive by small-press standards, and, again, success doesn’t translate to sales. We advertise our books and authors through social media, and for the last couple of years we’ve spent $2,000 to $3,000 annually on traditional advertising, including ads in The New York Review of Books. Practically nada, almost literally nothing. I may as well have shoveled all that cash into an incinerator.

The problem is that a smaller and smaller percentage of Americans are readers, and those who are readers are not interested in well-written, challenging texts. Data on how little Americans read, in every age group, are readily available. What is difficult to discern in the numbers is how little literature is being read. Surveys and studies tend to identify how frequently novels are being read, but it would seem that the vast majority of those books are mysteries, thrillers and other light genres. Perhaps one way of getting some idea of how much literature is being read is to compare it to poetry. According to Statista, eleven percent of Americans claim to read poetry on a regular basis. The reliability of these numbers is suspect, of course, but it may give us some sense of the situation.

One difficulty is answering the question, How does one define literature? William Gass seemed to have a working definition at least, one that he shared in a 1981 interview when he said, “Readers don’t want difficult works—not just mine—anybody’s. The reward for the time, effort, agony of getting into some of things is always problematic” (Castro 71). Nearly a decade before, Gass compared writing serious fiction to writing poetry, as far as reception was concerned:

I think fiction is going the way of poetry. It’s getting increasingly technical, increasingly aimed at a small audience, and so forth. And this is what happened to poetry—over a long period of time. And now fiction, which I suppose was once a leading popular art form, certainly isn’t any more. And serious fiction does not even hope for it. (Mullinax 14)

If not serious fiction, then, what is being published, especially by the Big Five commercial publishers? According to Gass, in 1976, “[a] lot of modern writers . . . are writing for the fast mind that speeds over the text like those noisy bastards in motor boats. . . .  They stand to literature as fast food to food” (LeClair 25). Indeed, in the early 1970s Gass saw the trend developing of a negative correlation between the quality of the writing (the seriousness of it) and its likelihood for being published at all. Regarding his eventual novel The Tunnel, Gass said that if he achieved his goal “perhaps it will be such a good book no one will want to publish it” (McCauley 12). It was published eventually, in 1995, after nearly thirty years of literary labor. By then Gass claimed that he “expected to be ignored. . . . There were some [critics] who were quite enthusiastic, but by and large it was the usual: just shrugs and nobody paid much attention” (Abowitz 145).

In essence, then, our culture—really, Western culture—has lost the literary voice: today’s Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, Lawrence, Gass, and so on. It’s an uphill struggle to find a publisher, and once found an even steeper struggle to find readers. Who today would publish Ulysses, leave be Finnegans Wake? If published, perhaps self-published, who would read it?

My time for this presentation grows short, so let me shift gears to the issue of What does it matter that less and less literature is being read? For one thing, I see the rise of Trump and Trumpism, which is synonymous with racism, White Nationalism, xenophobia, misogyny, and a host of other evils, as being related to the loss of the literary voice. This topic is clearly complex, and I can only barely begin to introduce it here, but we know that Trump supporters are in the minority in the United States, perhaps thirty to forty percent of the population, and we know that most of those Trump supporters live in non-urban areas—places where the demographic of white, Christian, heterosexual, patriarchal folks reside in insulated enclaves. They are fed their news and their views from conservative outlets and from Trump himself via Twitter, Fox News, Breitbart, etc. Meanwhile, we know that reading increases awareness of others—let’s say capital “O” Others—and study after study has shown that reading about those not like ourselves also fosters empathy.

Interwoven here is the subject of censorship, which I want to touch on briefly. In The Business of Books, Schiffrin discusses how right-leaning conglomerates overlook left-leaning authors, but beyond that editors in dog-eat-dog corporate publishing houses reject material for fear of its unpopularity, which would in turn adversely affect their pay and job security. Another disturbing trend is self-censorship among readers. It seems that the rising tide of conservatism is creating readers who won’t allow themselves to read material they deem immoral. A couple of anecdotes. In January I attended the MLA National Convention in Chicago, and one of the panels I went to was on Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint turning fifty. Two of three Roth scholars were from Midwestern universities, and they said they hadn’t actually taught Portnoy’s for years because their graduate students are too squeamish to discuss the book in class. The third Roth person was a professor at Princeton, and he was nonplussed. Apparently he teaches his Ivy Leaguers Portnoy’s every other semester.

I had a similar experience just last quarter. For our final reading I had assigned William Gass’s novella Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. I had one grad student refuse to read it when he discovered it contained “raunchy” language. A couple of other students read it but were put off by its language and sexual subject matter. I’ve been thinking that a fascist society hardly needs to bother imprisoning writers and burning books in the square if they can create a culture where most people don’t like to read and even budding “intellectuals” censor themselves on moral or religious grounds.

Speaking of Gass, long before the deleterious effects of the Internet and cable news could be known, he saw the handwriting on the wall. In his commencement address to the Washington University (St. Louis) Class of 1979, Gass cautioned the grads: “We are expected to get on with our life, to pass over it so swiftly we needn’t notice its lack of quality, the mismatch of theory with thing, the gap between program and practice. . . .  We’ve grown accustomed to the slum our consciousness has become” (“On Reading to Oneself” 222) The cure Gass advised is the reading of great books, “for reading is reasoning, figuring things out through thoughts, making arrangements out of arrangements until we’ve understood a text so fully it is nothing but feeling and pure response” (227). Elsewhere Gass emphasized that “the removal of bad belief [is] as important to a mind as a cancer’s excision [is] to the body it imperil[s]. To have a head full of nonsense is far worse that having a nose full of flu . . .” (“Retrospection” 51). He went on to recommend rigorous self-skepticism regarding one’s own ideas, “theorizing” about errors in thinking: “Skepticism,” he said, “was my rod, my staff, my exercise, and from fixes, my escape.”

We must make those who are prone to bigotry, who believe brown-skinned migrants deserve to be tossed in cages or left to perish in rivers and at sea, who are anxious to accept any fraudulent information that supports their worldview, who deny the threat of climate change in spite of the data, who believe healthcare is a privilege—we must make them self-skeptical, as Gass advised. We must get them in the habit of questioning their own beliefs. We must get them reading again. Or as Laurie Champion describes it, in her article on Thoreau and Bobbie Ann Mason, we must get people in “a transcendental state of mind that involves intellectual and spiritual searches that lead to clear sight” (57).

Doing that, no matter how difficult, must be our mission.

Note

I realize of course that I’m not the first person to lament the sorry state of serious writing in their time. Just a few examples: Emerson, Margaret Fuller and other Transcendentalists founded The Dial in 1840 due in large part to the dearth of decent reading material in spite of their periodical-rich time period. Victorian and Edwardian editor and critic Edward Garnett frequently clashed with the publishers for whom he worked because he felt they didn’t do enough to cultivate a more cosmopolitan appetite among England’s overly conservative and insulated readers. James Joyce famously exiled himself to the Continent mainly due to the sad state of Irish letters. A key difference perhaps, between these thens and now, is that there were a lot of people reading a lot of material, whereas today fewer and fewer people are reading, anything, period.

Works Cited

Abowitz, Richard. “Still Digging: A William Gass Interview.” Ammon, pp. 142-148.

Ammon, Theodore G., editor. Conversations with William H. Gass. UP of Mississippi, 2003.

Castro, Jan Garden. “An Interview with William Gass.” Ammon, pp. 71-80.

Champion, Laurie. “‘I Keep Looking Back to See Where I’ve Been’: Bobbie Ann Mason’s Clear Springs and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.” Southern Literary Journal, vol. 36, no. 2, 2004, pp. 47-58.

Gass, William H. “The Artist and Society.” Fiction and the Figures of Life, Knopf, 1970, pp. 276-288.

—. “On Reading to Oneself.” Habitations of the Word, Simon & Schuster, 1985, pp. 217-228.

—. Preface. In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, by Gass. 1968. Godine, 1981, pp. xiii-xlvi.

—. “Retrospection.” Life Sentences. Knopf, 2012, pp. 36-55.

King, Daniel Robert. Cormac McCarthy’s Literary Evolution: Editors, Agents, and the Crafting of a Prolific American Author. The U of Tennessee P, 2016.

LeClair, Thomas. “William Gass: The Art of Fiction LXV.” Ammon, pp. 17-38.

McCauley, Carole Spearin. “William H. Gass.” Ammon, pp. 3-12.

Milliot, Jim. “Ranking America’s Largest Publishers.” Publisher’s Weekly, 24 Feb. 2017, https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/72889-ranking-america-s-largest-publishers.html. Accessed 14 April 2019.

Mullinax, Gary. “An Interview with William Gass.” Ammon, pp. 13-16.

Schiffrin, André. The Business of Books. Verso, 2000.

Critical thinking, conservatism and a personal conundrum

Posted in October 2017, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on October 22, 2017

I have a confession: I’ve been feeling anxious since the start of the school year. I haven’t slept especially well. I’ve had digestive issues. I developed a case of shingles. I’ve had trouble concentrating, and I’ve experienced some uncharacteristic lethargy (which I attribute to a mild bout of depression). Here’s the problem, I think: I’m a schoolteacher and I’m being evaluated this year. I don’t blame the Danielson Framework directly, but I do blame it for contributing to my anxiety.

This is my thirty-fourth year in the classroom, teaching mainly senior English classes (meanwhile I’ve also spent about twenty years teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in literature and writing — I have an MA and a Ph.D. in my subject area). Pre-Danielson, evaluations were kind of a nuisance, but all in all a positive experience. They would end with me sitting in my evaluator’s office discussing teaching strategies, underscoring things that seemed to work well and identifying an area or two where some tinkering may be in order. For twenty-plus years, I’d leave the office with an “excellent” rating, some food for thought (largely generated by my own self-reflection), and a sense of well-being because I was perceived as a valuable part of the school community. In short, I believed my evaluator was glad I was in the classroom.

Then came Charlotte Danielson and the Danielson Framework. Profit-driven school reformers and the legislators in their pockets embraced the Framework because of its proclivity to find fault with teachers. It was originally designed, after all, to be used with first-year teachers, so of course finding fault (that is, finding areas that need improvement) was one of its chief goals. It is rife with hairsplitting adjectives, adverbs and verbs that invite evaluators to select between categories (“distinguished” versus “proficient” for instance) that are separated by a razor’s edge. For example, right off the bat, in Domain One, “Demonstrating Knowledge of Content and Pedagogy,” evaluators are tasked with differentiating between a teacher who “displays extensive knowledge of the important concepts in the discipline and how these relate to one another and to other disciplines” (Distinguished) and a teacher who “displays solid knowledge of the important concepts in the discipline and how these relate to one another” (merely Proficient).

How does one quantitatively distinguish “extensive” from “solid” knowledge? How many whats are in an extensive understanding, and how many whats are in a solid understanding? Both teachers must show how these bits of knowledge relate to one another, but the distinguished teacher also shows how these bits relate to other disciplines. As an English teacher, I’m not sure what is meant by “other disciplines.” Under the umbrella of English are slightly smaller umbrella areas like literature, composition, and linguistics; and under each of these slightly smaller umbrellas like American literature, versus British literature, versus world literature; then we have Colonial and Native American literature, nineteenth-century literature, twentieth-century literature, and so on. Or does “other disciplines” strictly mean, from an English perspective, things like history, biology, psychology, and physical education? If one discusses character motivation in a piece of literature, is that not touching on psychology? If one discusses setting, could that not touch on history?

Then there’s the whole issue of explicit versus implicit display? How obviously must the relationship be made in order to count as being connected? And wait a second — isn’t the whole idea for the students to be making the connections themselves? Is the teacher who draws the connections explicitly doing the intellectual work for the students? Isn’t it better to lead the students to the point where they can make the connections themselves? How exactly will the evaluator be able to determine who among a hundred different souls made (or will someday make) connections thanks to a particular teacher’s efforts? Therefore, perhaps the teacher who isn’t demonstrating connections is the more distinguished teacher. Maybe Sister Charlotte has it all bass ackwards. Right? (After all, she has extremely limited classroom experience.)

Let’s toss into the chaotic mix the fact that the evaluators tasked with making these Solomon-like decisions almost certainly, statistically speaking, aren’t qualified to teach the subject themselves (they were, say, a drivers education teacher and now they’re evaluating an Advanced Placement chemistry teacher, or they were a choir teacher and now they’re evaluating an art teacher). Also, even with pop-in visits to the teacher’s classroom, they’re still only observing teachers less than 1% of the time they spend with students during the course of the school year.

Wait, you argue, teachers being evaluated under Danielson also have to provide documentation, that is, “artifacts” that demonstrate their abilities in the various Domains. When Danielson first came along six years ago (as far as my world is concerned), teachers would overwhelm their evaluators with hundreds of pages of artifacts, which still only told a tiny sliver of their story in the classroom. Understandably, evaluators weren’t able to wade through all the paperwork — to say nothing of their ability to understand it in any meaningful sort of way. (I certainly couldn’t look at a six-inch stack of handouts from the chemistry teacher or physics teacher or French teacher or P.E. teacher and be able to determine if it all meant they were Distinguished versus Proficient [versus Basic versus Unsatisfactory].)

After that initial round of Danielson-style evaluations, a lot of districts went to a slim-downed approach whereby teachers would only have to give their evaluator the bare minimum of artifactual evidence of their teaching ability. Great. But, hold on, isn’t the idea of providing artifacts designed to compensate for the copious gaps left by their evaluators observing their teaching less than 1% of the time they spend with students? The ridiculously thick binders of documentation only told a tiny portion of the teacher’s professional story, and now the big improvement is that teachers are allowed to provide a tiny portion of the tiny portion. Granted, the amount of material is much more manageable, but does it a give greater or lesser insight into the teacher’s professional skills? Yes, reading only the first few pages of James Joyce’s Ulysses is a more manageable task than reading the whole 650-page novel of dense, experimental prose — but should one be in a position of authoritatively passing judgment on the book? (Side note: Censors used to think so.)

Thousands of teachers find themselves in the anxiety-producing situation of having their livelihoods depend on the assessment of an evaluator who isn’t qualified in their subject area and who has significantly less classroom experience, who’s using an instrument designed by someone with even fewer qualifications and even less experience, mandated by legislators who have no qualifications and no experience. It’s a wonder any of us can eat or sleep at all.

Two years ago, I found myself in fairly serious trouble with my superior. The incident happened after my evaluation was completed (just). I received an “excellent” (our version of “distinguished”), but it was no sure thing; and with the shadow of the incident of two years ago still stretching its gloom over my teaching life, I have no idea what to expect this time around. It’s a complicated story and it’d probably be unwise to get into the details, but I believe it all boils down to the fact that my overarching goal as a teacher has always been to coax my students into being critical thinkers. Every day, sometimes by microscopic degrees, I’m trying to prod my students toward becoming critical thinkers, or better and better critical thinkers.

To think critically one must at one’s core question literally everything. Nothing can be sacred; that is, no subject, no person, no movement — nothing — can be beyond critical analysis. With the rise of the Alt-right and Trumpism, we have seen the most extreme conservative elements in our society emboldened. The media cover the most eye-catching examples: dramatic rallies, violent attacks, policy shifts at the state and federal levels, and so on.

But the rise of extreme conservatism filters into our everyday lives, and conservatism is antithetical to critical thinking. For conservatives, there are sacred subjects: God and guns, for example, the concept of American exceptionalism, and, perhaps most sacred of all, conservatism itself. Throughout my career I have encouraged my students to question everything — all ideas, liberal and conservative, all people and their most heartfelt opinions, including me and mine. Extreme conservatives don’t want that sort of academic environment for their children. They don’t want their children critically analyzing conservatives’ sacred subjects — and teachers who encourage such analyses are considered antagonists.

I’m sure extreme conservatives in our communities have always felt this way, but from my perspective it’s only been since the rise of the Alt-right and Trumpism that they’ve been emboldened to attack individual teachers whom they see as part of some ill-defined liberal conspiracy to indoctrinate their children with unwholesome, impure and downright dangerous thoughts. My methods, however, are not designed to imprint certain kinds of thoughts on students’ brains, liberal or otherwise, but rather to enable students to develop their own ideas based on legitimately generated data — thoughts which may run contrary to my own way of viewing the world, and that’s just fine with me. Nothing brightens my day more than a student showing me a new way of seeing things.

I am not someone who seeks out and enjoys confrontation — most teachers, I would say, are not. But I find myself in a professional and personal conundrum: Do I remain true to my overarching mission of fashioning my students into lean, mean critical-thinking machines, or do I avoid conflict by kowtowing and treating certain topics as untouchable because conservatives consider them sacred? Once those walls of untouchability are erected, their confinements spread like a cancer through the anatomy of critical thinking. In fact, critical thinking ceases to exist.

What is more, teachers in the humanities, and especially teachers of older students in the humanities, are unfairly at risk to come under attack by conservatives. Teachers in the sciences and vocational areas are not duty-bound to engage controversial subjects. Conservatives don’t concern themselves with the way geometry theorems are taught, or which method of accounting the business teacher advocates, or the proper way to apply lacquer to a freshly constructed cabinet.

Life, on the other hand, is different for English teachers. How does one teach To Kill a Mockingbird without entering into discussions of racism? Or Heart of Darkness and considerations of colonialism? Macbeth and ill-gotten political power run amok? How does one teach logical fallacies and propaganda techniques, and avoid contemporary examples related to “fake news” and “alternative facts”?

My seniors graduate to schools like Cornell, Notre Dame, DePaul, Northwestern, and University of Illinois to name a few. They are considering careers in medicine, the law, engineering, psychology. As undergraduates and graduate students they will be in direct competition with peers who have come out of academic environments immune to conservative meddling. My students’ critical-thinking skills must be as finely tuned as I am capable of making them, but in recent years I have been hamstrung with the knowledge that bringing up the wrong topic in class or allowing students to pursue certain lines of inquiry could jeopardize my career. For the material we’re studying I think of apt comparisons to current events, but hold my tongue. Before, a lively and thought-provoking discussion could have ensued. Now we quietly move on to the next page of text.

Compounding the problem is that the complexly nebulous Danielson Framework can be manipulated to find teachers to be whatever evaluators want them to be: from rock star to ne’er-do-well — it all depends on what boxes an evaluator feels like checking: Does a teacher demonstrate solid or extensive knowledge of concepts? To be clear, it’s not simply a matter of ego. What difference does it make, one might ask, whether a teacher is judged this versus that according to the Danielson rubric?

Here’s the answer: Republican legislators have been chipping away at tenure and seniority laws and at teacher unions, and they’ve been successful in Illinois and elsewhere at weakening the webwork of laws to the point where a veteran teacher could be terminated in favor of a less-experienced one if their evaluation shows them to be lacking. It’s all under the pretense of giving school boards the ability to replace old, underachieving teachers with young go-getters. But it could easily be used to replace an expensive teacher with a cheaper one, a trouble-making teacher with a more docile one, a liberally minded teacher with a more conservative one — or a gay teacher with a straight one, a teacher of color with a white one, a female with a male, a Muslim with a Christian, an agnostic with a believer.

Charlotte Danielson herself noted that the biggest problem with her own Framework is the misdirected way evaluators are applying it to their teaching staff. In fact, she recommends that her Framework not be used once a teacher has achieved a particular professional status (tenure perhaps?).

The Danielson Framework, combined with the rise of extreme conservatism have opened the door to a world where ability, experience, dedication and old-fashioned hard work can be rendered moot by a series of checks on a computer screen. This new reality is what’s been weighing on me since the start of the school year, and I know I’m not alone. My posts about the shortcomings of the Danielson Framework and how the Framework is being used in education have attracted around 200,000 readers and hundreds of comments (practically all of them in support of my views) — some posted to my blog, but others sent to me via email or Messenger, or spoken in person, because many, many teachers want to avoid the public viewing of their opinions. They are afraid of reprisals.

This has become the world in which we teach.

I have reached the end of this post. My finger, in essence, hovers over the “Publish” button. My anxiety spikes. My gut takes a turn or two. Will posting this help anyone or anything, or is it merely adding another nail to my coffin?

(Note: Stock teacher image found here.)