Scene Report —
Teacher-Scholar-Activist: Making a Scene
by Darin Jensen, Patrick Sullivan & Christie Toth
We established Teacher-Scholar-Activist after years of seeing so much in the realm of public policy we found deeply troubling. Economic inequality in the United States has reached historic highs (Atkinson; Duncan and Murnane; Piketty). Books warn of the threat these disparities pose to the health of our democracy (Acemoglu and Robinson; Goldin and Katz; Mayer Dark Money; Mayer "Reclusive"; Reich; Stiglitz). States have disinvested from postsecondary education and implemented ill-conceived reforms across all educational sectors (Darling-Hammond; Ravitch; Ripley; Tucker). Interventionist legislatures have undercut the disciplinary and professional expertise of teachers (Hassel et al.; Sullivan "Ideas"). Communities dedicated to learning have been belittled by politicians and pundits. For decades, we have witnessed a systematic attack on open-minded inquiry, on unions and job security, on policies advancing racial and gender equity, on the idea of the public good itself.
We realized that we could no longer take the democratic commitments of public education for granted. Indeed, we never should have: who is included in "the public," what counts as "good," and how that good might best be achieved has always been contested. As teachers committed to access and equity, we believed we had values worth defending; we also knew many of our ideals for public education have never been fully realized. Our work with students, while important, was not enough. Our scholarship, while valuable, relied on a distribution system that was inaccessible to many and too slow to respond to the urgent political context. We were teachers and scholars, but we would have to become activists if we were going to create the educational system our students and communities deserve. As we thought about how we might work together to enact that role, we realized we needed a new kind of writing space. Thus, the Teacher-Scholar-Activist website was born.
Teacher-Scholar-Activist aims to cultivate a community of literacy educators across institution types to promote democratic engagement and social justice. We draw the phrase "teacher-scholar-activist" from a scholarly conversation that is reshaping professional identities among two-year college English faculty (Andelora, "Teacher/Scholar/Activist"; Sullivan; Calhoon- Dillahunt et al.; Toth, Calhoon-Dillahunt, and Sullivan; Jensen and Ely; Jensen and Toth; Giordano and Hassel). The term was first articulated by Mesa Community College's Jeffrey Andelora ("Teacher/Scholar/Activist") and further developed by Patrick Sullivan of Manchester Community College. Teacher-scholar-activists assert that two-year college faculty can be more than "just" teachers, and they must also be more than "teacher-scholars" who contribute to disciplinary knowledge-making (Tinberg, "Seeing Ourselves"; Border Talk; "Teaching English"; Reynolds; Andelora, "Teacher/Scholar"; "Forging"; Two-Year College English Association; Toth and Sullivan). In Sullivan's words, faculty at open admissions community colleges should also "deliberately frame our professional identity, in part, as activists–accepting and embracing the revolutionary and inescapably political nature of our work" (327). While teacher-scholar-activism emerged in response to the neoliberal pressures faced by community colleges during the Obama administration, it offers all literacy educators a framework for reconceptualizing their professional identities to contend with the threats to public education—and to broader efforts to advance social justice—exacerbated by the crisis of the 2016 election.
Teacher-Scholar-Activist is our effort to create a flexible and accessible space to foster solidarity among literacy educators in defense of open admissions education for the public good. We wanted to create a forum where teachers would share perspectives outside constraints of scholarly publication and professional organizations. Teacher-Scholar-Activist is a DIY undertaking: a friend designed our logo, we created a WordPress site, and began soliciting short essays from colleagues across the country. We have been amazed at the range of insightful contributions this effort has elicited.
Our first contributor, Paige Hermansen of Westfield State University, wrote that "now is the time to stand up for public education" as it "has been embattled for decades." She argues that these "attacks on our schools and teachers are delivered to the public in shinier packages every year" (Hermansen). These packages, emerging from foundations, corporations, philanthropist billionaires, and politicians make up what Linda Adler-Kassner called the Education Industrial Complex. The question is, how do we resist? How do we, without the megaphone of money, make a difference?
On Teacher-Scholar-Activist, educators share the work they are doing locally to counteract the forces that seek to instrumentalize education. We view this work as a form of what Shari Stenberg calls "feminist repurposing, a practice of locating and enacting imaginative possibilities for change and agency within—and often out of—prohibitive and even damaging cultural conditions" (2). We believe that stories of local actions in the face of such conditions are a resource from which our entire professional community can draw.
For example, in one recent post, Danielle Helzer, who teaches at Nebraska's Central Community College, relates her experience of blending social activism into her curriculum. She recounts the resistance she met from her administration in teaching Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," with her principal making her send home a permission slip and letting her know that not all parents might want their child to read the work of a "black man." The racism she describes is palpable. Nevertheless, she persisted. And her students created projects that engaged the community. She notes that it was the only project that had a 100% completion rate (Helzer). It is this kind of work that heartens us and, we hope, bolsters other educators.
In his post on Teacher-Scholar-Activist, Seth Kahn of Westchester University reminds us that there isn't a monolithic public for us to reach. He tells us that "we've said the magic words, thousands of times, to millions of people, in print and in person and on social media. Our best representatives [...] have been arguing from our professional knowledge about writing instruction for years. Just telling the truth isn't working" (Kahn). Explicitly complementing Linda Adler-Kassner's recent Teacher-Scholar-Activist post, Kahn articulates two approaches for working for change–one from the inside and one from the outside. We are aiming Teacher-Scholar-Activist at a specific set of publics: teachers and students who believe that education and activism can be blended for the public good, both from within and without, at local as well as national scales. We hope Teacher-Scholar-Activist will bear witness to this work in all its permutations.
As a matter of principle, Teacher-Scholar-Activist works to bring voices from across institution types into conversation with one another. We view this as an activist challenge to institutional hierarchies within the discipline that too often render community colleges invisible. We particularly hope the site will become a resource for graduate students. In the estimation of many two-year college faculty, too little is done to prepare these students for the political realities of education in the 21st century (Hassel et al.; Calhoon-Dillahunt et al.; Jensen and Toth). We hope our efforts to promote a spectrum of voices across institutional boundaries will provide a more inclusive vision of English Studies and foster cross-sector allyship. We believe that inclusive vision is vital to our survival as a profession.
We pursue these commitments with passion, and with humility. We have much to learn from veteran activists, both in and beyond the academy, who have long been working to address the persistent inequities that have always been a part of our educational system and our society. Further, we know that reading and writing about activism is not enough. We hope the site will become a place for sharing not just stories, but calls for action. Ultimately, Teacher-Scholar-Activist will be shaped by its reader-contributors. We invite you to join us in making this scene.
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Andelora, Jeffrey. "Forging a National Identity: TYCA and the Two-Year College Teacher- Scholar." Teaching English in the Two-Year College, vol. 35, no. 4, 2008, pp. 350-362.
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