The anti-handout beliefs and rhetoric from white Americans is a painful paradox exposing the lack of awareness and active denial among white people.

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My 4.5 year journey as an undergraduate and the first five years teaching high school English were spent mostly in the Reagan era.

While this was many decades before terminology such as “fake news” or “post-truth,” I literally lived during those years a painful and now embarrassing conversion from white denial and ignorance (believing in reverse discrimination, for example) to racial awareness and seeking a life dedicated to racial equity grounded in my own awareness of white privilege.

I had been raised in racism and white denial that pervaded my home and community so when I returned to my hometown high school to teach, I felt compelled to help my students make a similar conversion as mine but not have to endure the stress of experiencing that growth as late as I did. …

No one learns to write spontaneously, and certainly first-year college students cannot attain advanced academic skills in a three-month semester.

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My first-year writing seminars are grounded in two concepts — workshop structure (multiple drafts of essays combined with conferencing over long periods of time) and portfolio assessment (a portfolio of all course work is submitted for the final exam).

In that final portfolio, students submit final versions of all four essays, rank those essays in order of quality according to them, and submit a reflection that details the key lessons they have learned about writing as well as a few areas they need to continue improving.

This pandemic semester has added a significant and noticeable layer of stress to first-semester first-year students so I have adjusted the final weeks of the seminars this fall, ending in just a few days. One change has been to replace the usual Essay 4 assignment (an open assignment in which students submit a proposal for the type of essay and topic before submitting a first full draft) with the end-of-course reflection usually required in the final portfolio. …

The tension between being a student and a writer is not insurmountable, I hope, but it certainly must be confronted openly and directly in our classes, especially our writing-intensive classes.

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I worry about my students.

I worry, I think, well past the line of being too demanding in the same way being a parent can (will?) become overbearing.

Good intentions and so-called tough love are not valid justifications, I recognize, but there is a powerful paradox to being the sort of kind and attentive teacher I want to be and the inherent flaws in believing that learning comes directly from my purposeful teaching and high demands.

After 37 years of teaching — and primarily focusing throughout my career on teaching students to write — I have witnessed that one of the greatest tensions of formal education is the contradiction of being a student versus being a writer. …

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What I want
All I really wanted
Just to live my life on high

“I’ve Been High,” R.E.M.

i. <my body is failing me>

my body is failing me aging
in ways only my lover knows

with the bittersweet awareness of intimacy
and then briefly revealed disappointment

i watch my lover paint her fingernails black
her bare feet with toenails candy apple red

if i took a picture to hold her/us there
as if i could stop time from buzzing by

it still would change nothing about me
a body failing me and her there on the floor

ii. <the bees returned>

the bees returned

a couple weeks into november
a hurricane well to our south
pushing summer-like fall back
over us after a first taste of winter

honey bees and yellow jackets
swarming in the warming air
while thunderstorms surrounded us
overdressed in long sleeves and jackets

iii. …

Those of us, especially those of us on the authentic Left, who embrace the possibility of human equity guaranteed by and for a free people have no real political party for our allegiance.

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I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own. And I am not free s long as one person of Color remains chained. Nor is any of you.

“The Uses of Anger,” Audre Lorde

The U.S. has elected Joe Biden president, ending the presidency of Donald Trump.

This is a return to the standard failure of the democratic process in a country that is primarily committed to the free market, rugged individualism, and guns.

Biden is the normal but truly awful presidential candidate, replacing the uniquely horrible election of Trump.

As many people have noted, changing presidents typically means only small differences in the daily lives of people. …

What students remain trapped within, despite my repeated direct instruction and feedback on their writing, are many years of powerfully misguided writing lessons that have created students who feel compelled in the first sentences of their essays to overstate nothing.

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I may have just read the worst essay I have ever read submitted by a student — since the beginning of time.

And that occurs in this context: I have been teaching adolescents and young adults to write for 37 years.

Of the tens of thousands of student submissions I have read, of course, this essay cannot really be the worst. But that sort of dramatic overstatement is exactly what brings me to discussing that essay and many just like it submitted recently as we near the end of the semester.

The papers in context

As context, many of these essays have been submitted after more than two months of first-year writing seminar where I have explicitly focused on vivid and engaging openings and closings. …

With wealth and power disproportionately and historically pooled among white people, hiring has long been skewed toward white bias, cronyism, and nepotism.

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As the news has spread about my university being the latest case of white faculty claiming false diverse identities, I have seen on social media one of the negative consequences I anticipated from this situation — people criticizing diversity hiring.

I expected this sort of backlash because every time the issue of needing to hire a more diverse faculty has been raised among faculty, one of the first responses is, “We should always hire the most qualified candidate.”

The person voicing that position is always a white man.

And each time a new hire turns out to be a white man (again) even though the final 2 or 3 candidates include diverse people, the response is, “We hired the best candidate.” …

White women passing as not white has become a multi-layered offensive whitewashing of “by any means necessary,” since this act of being an imposter seems designed to manipulate a genuine problem in academia, the lack of diversity.

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My mother, sister, and aunt at our country club pool (July 1971).

Every white person in this country — and I do not care what he or she says — knows one thing. They may not know, as they put it, “what I want,” but they know they would not like to be black here. If they know that, then they know everything they need to know, and whatever else they say is a lie.

James Baldwin, On Language, Race and the Black Writer(Los Angeles Times, 1979)

I have these very deep feelings that white people who want to join black organizations are really just taking the escapist way to salve their consciences. …

At the core of the perfect trap are some fundamental problems with traditional teaching that are firming linked to grades and evaluation.

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Many years ago when I was teaching high school English in rural upstate South Carolina, I taught all three of the district’s superintendent’s children — two daughters and a son.

The older daughter in many ways represented both a uniquely smart and hard-working student and the paradox of the perfect student.

These were the early days of me learning how to teach writing well; these were the early days when I taught with a sort of earnest zeal that can never make up for the horrific blunders I imposed on several years of students.

Setting aside everything I did wrong — reminding us all that learning to write and learning how to teach writing are journeys — I was from the earliest days as a teacher firmly committed to students experiencing writer’s workshop and writing often, authentically, and with multiple drafts for each essay. …

This is capitalism, not science; this is the free market, not education for equity and democracy.

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In the pre-pandemic world that seems much further in the past than it is, I traveled from South Carolina to Milwaukee in February of 2020 to speak at the Wisconsin State Reading Association (WSRA) annual convention.

My public work had been dominated by refuting the “science of reading” movement for more than a year at that point — including having a book in press on the “science of reading” as another version of the Reading War — so I arrived in Milwaukee a bit apprehensive about how I would be received.

My session was well attended by an energetic crowd of teachers who seemed eager to engage in why the “science of reading” movement was misguided, but I also encountered another distinct frustration among teachers I had not anticipated. …


Paul Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education.

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