Faculty Spotlight: Susan Steinberg

USF Professor and English Department chair Susan Steinberg is the author of four books and recent recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship. Awarded on the basis of prior achievement and exceptional promise, Professor Steinberg was chosen from a group of almost 3,000 applicants in the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation’s ninety-sixth competition. Our conversation discusses her writing achievements and plans for the future.

Susan Steinberg photo

When did you realize you had a passion for writing?

I liked to write stories as a kid, and I kept diaries as a teenager, but I was always more interested in visual art—I went to art school and majored in painting. At the end of my junior year, I was injured in a car accident and couldn’t paint for months. During that time, I was writing a lot—they were mostly rants that I wrote in columns in a spiral notebook—and I continued to work on these after I was back in the studio. I gradually started taking the writing more seriously, and after graduating, I decided to take a few workshops and was encouraged by a teacher to pursue an MFA in fiction.

How did you end up at USF?

After grad school, I taught in a small town in western Missouri for two years.  It was a great experience, but I wanted to live in a city again, so I applied for several teaching jobs and was most excited about USF.

How has winning a Guggenheim Fellowship impacted your writing?

The Guggenheim has coincided with the pandemic, and I haven’t fully benefitted from it yet.  That said, I feel inspired just knowing the support is there, and I’ve been hard at work on a new project. Once we can travel again, I plan to do much of the writing in Paris and Rome.

Describe some of your recent work.

My most recently published book, Machine, is an experimental novel that follows a group of teenagers living in a beach town in a summer during which a girl drowns; the narrator is a girl who’s fixated on the night it happened.  My previous book, Spectacle, is a collection of linked experimental short stories.

How have the themes of your writing evolved over time, and have recent events changed those?

I’m often convinced that we write one story for our entire lives; it just takes on new forms and details from piece to piece.  Recently, I looked back at some things I wrote when I was a teenager, and I was amazed by how much it resembled the writing in my books, even formally.  I often write about family dysfunction, relationships, gender, privilege, trauma, and loss.  Recent personal events have shifted the themes even more, but recent global events haven’t contributed as much. It’s unlikely I’ll be writing about the pandemic or the election.

How do you bring these themes to your courses at USF?

I don’t intend to bring my own writing topics into class, though similar issues often appear in the work we’re discussing, whether it’s published or student work.  My course topics are often on whatever I’m questioning at the time. Most recently I’ve taught courses on Point of View, Excess, and Literary Controversy, and next semester I’m teaching a course on Distance at the University of Iowa.

What are you looking at next?

I’m currently working on a novel which attempts to subvert the literary “trope” of the “missing girl.” It also explores perceptions of masculinity.

Helen Sword: Writing with Pleasure

Participants at Writing with Pleasure

Over twenty faculty participated in this February workshop for academic writers who aspired to bring more “air & light & time & space” into their own writing practice. Helen Sword made an evidence-based case for recuperating pleasure as a legitimate (and indeed crucial) academic emotion. Sword encouraged participants to think about objects, places, and aspects of writing that brings joy to faculty and provided resources to analyze writing style and behavior.

Participants found it helpful to hear about the writing process from a different perspective and reflected on their own writing habits in a new way.

Encountering the City and the Self in Khary Lazarre-White’s Passage

On October 18, 2017, CRASE hosted writer, social justice advocate, attorney, and activist Khary Lazarre-White. Lazarre-White discussed his work as co-founder of the Brotherhood/Sister Sol (Bro/Sis) and his debut novel Passage (Seven Stories Press). Brotherhood/Sister Sol is a nationally renowned, Harlem based, comprehensive youth development and educational organization that provides rites of passage programming, arts and enrichment based after school care, counseling, summer camps, job training, college preparation and scholarship, and month long international studies programs to Africa and Latin American. In this post, assistant professor of English Samira Abdur-Rahman, moderator of the event, reflects on the themes of Passage.

In “New York State of Mind,” a track on his debut album Illmatic, twenty-year-old Nas raps “I never sleep cause sleep is the cousin of death.” In Passage, we are told that the protagonist Warrior does not shut his eyes when he sleeps, that this is a trait passed down through the generations: “Even when he really slept, and when he was most relaxed, in his deepest dreams, Warrior’s eyes were open.”  In the magical, Afro-surrealist world of Passage, we are encouraged to understand these open eyes both figuratively and literally. Open eyes are a metaphor for Warrior’s consciousness, for his acuity as a reader of both the surfaces and deeper implications of his experiences and self.

At the same time, Nas and Warrior are describing the reality of their vulnerability in the tones of a guarded masculinity. Sleeping is dangerous and not being on guard could possibly risk your life and/or the lives of your loved ones. The lyrics to “New York State of Mind” are gritty, yet they also operate at a level of myth making and imagination defying the simplistic designation of gangsta rap or pure street documentary. Nas’s Illmatic was released in 1994 and narrated his life growing up in the Queensbridge Projects. Passage is set in 1993, in the boroughs of Harlem and Brooklyn, but its prose embodies the deep and complex knowledges emblematic of what we now identify as the golden era of hip hop, an era that put New York City’s boroughs on the map.  Nas speaks of project living, yet the figurative and literal interiors of his life defy stereotype. So, too, do the interiors of Warrior’s life.

Passage is a novel of the hip hop generation but speaks to the late geographer’s Clyde Wood sense of the symbiotic relationship between blues and hip hop geography. As Lazarre-White stated during his talk, New York City is not simply a geography; it is a character in the novel. Blues tropes are our entry into the world of Passage—they construct a language for Warrior’s encounters with the city, with his ancestors and with his self. In his eloquent study of hip hop aesthetics, Jelani Cobb describes the blue’s bad man figure. Characteristically braggadocious, fearless and mythically strong, the bad man figure was an attempt to resist the very real vulnerabilities that black men faced in the oppressive, racial caste system of Jim Crow.

In the place of myths of badness and heroic strength, the opening scene of Passage describes Warrior’s anger: “It had been the same for years now. Warrior woke angry. Just plain old surly mean. Angry at existence…He knew he was tired…and angry.” The book highlights spaces that produce but also potentially untangle the knot of anger, which allows us to see beyond the misunderstood postures of Warrior’s teen masculinity and takes us deeper into the circles of Warrior’s thoughts, fears and his loves.

Warrior loves his two best friends, one a teenage girl who lives in a house of three generations of Caribbean women. He receives letters from his other best friend, the incarcerated brotherman, a victim of police brutality and the criminal justice system. Warrior’s teacher mother and musician father are loving parents. They respect and understand their son enough to impart on him diasporic lessons, instructions in black history and aesthetics. They respect him enough to listen to him, to let him argue with them, to understand that Warrior is dealing with new terrains of both violence and identity. They love Warrior, yet they cannot offer him complete protection as he navigates the realities of the outside, of the brutal winter, of the blue soldiers who torture and disfigure young black bodies. Still they are committed to helping him through his passage.

At the event, Lazarre-White commented on the significance of the word “passage”—its allusion to the brutality of the transatlantic slave trade and noted it as indicative of the rites of passage needed by Warrior to transition into a new phase. In articulating the hauntings of the past and the possibilities of Warrior’s passage, the novel’s characters speak in folkloric syntax, through riddles, aphorisms and paradoxes, through the language of the everyday, the magical and the sublime. The novel speaks this way because it acknowledges the complex ways that young people feel, experience and narrate their worlds.

Samira Abdur-Rahman’s current book project is Sites of Instruction: The Geography of Black Childhood.

Tips for Creating a Semester Plan for Faculty Success in Writing and Research

At the CRASE Plan Your Semester workshop, 17 faculty and staff, including several new faculty members, worked on developing a semester-long plan. Below, Professor Christine Yeh summarizes key steps in creating a Semester Plan using materials developed by the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (NCFDD).

plan your semester

When creating a concrete Semester Plan, the main challenges academics often face include: (1) unstructured time, (2) varied and time consuming commitments, (3) prioritizing, and (4) underestimating the time required for research and writing. Due to these challenges, writing time often gets pushed aside and replaced by smaller but time-consuming tasks such as email requests, committee responsibilities, administrative reports, and student issues. Because we perceive having free time to write, we often allow these duties to take over in the hope of finding time elsewhere in our busy schedules, but it is important to prioritize our scholarship and personal goals.

To make a successful Semester Plan, know what you need and what you need to accomplish. Create a realistic plan to meet all of your needs including personal and professional goals, and build in support, structure, and accountability.

Five steps can help you create and implement a strategic Semester Plan:

  1. Identify your personal and professional goals
  2. Map out the steps and work to accomplish your specific goals
  3. Introduce your projects to your semester calendar and schedule them in
  4. Build in the support and accountability for completing these goals
  5. Work the Semester Plan

Identify Your Goals

People often start the process by identifying their goals and then stop, but it’s important to remember that according to NCFDD, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” When you start to put together a Semester Plan, identify both research/writing goals and personal goals. During the workshop, participants identified three research/writing goals and three personal goals to get the process started.

Once you’ve identified your goals, the next step is to make them SMART goals. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attractive, Realistic, and Time-framed. By reframing goals as SMART goals, they become more concrete and realistic. An example of a personal goal would be to spend time outside, but once transformed as a SMART goal, it may look more like mountain biking once a week on Saturdays from 9-11 am or to try a new 3-hour hike on the first Saturday morning of each month.

Map out the steps and work to accomplish your goal

Working with the SMART goals, you can now write out the steps required to make each goal happen. For example, when developing a book proposal, you may need to draft different sections, create a table of contents, and select a publisher. Break down your goals to individual to-do tasks that you can schedule into your calendar.

Introduce your projects to your semester calendar

Now that you have the steps to accomplish each goal, it’s time to start scheduling them into your calendar. We recommend opening Google Calendar, or the system that works for you, and add each item into your calendar. It’s important to accurately estimate how much time the task will take. Scheduling tasks into your calendar will help you see how busy you are with other commitments such as mid-term grading and travel plans, and you can adjust your timeframe to match the semester.

Build in Support and Accountability

The next step is to make sure you have the support and accountability to make sure you get your tasks completed. Some ideas for support include making plans to write on-site, online writing groups, accountability group check-ins, or a writing buddy/coach.

Work the Plan

Once your strategic plan is complete, schedule a meeting with a mentor, writing friend, or accountability group and share your goals. As you work through your Semester Plan, some tasks may take more time than you estimated, but you can always adjust your timeframe. Understanding how long tasks will take will help when you plan future semesters.

Faculty colleagues who successfully completed their semester plans shared some helpful tips. These include the following:

  1. After entering writing tasks and goals into your calendar, color code them based on the type of writing project.
  2. Assign specific times to each goal so you can best estimate how much time to spend on them.
  3. Share your priority goals with collaborators so they are also on board with your time frame and deadlines.

It is important to be able to adapt and change your Semester Plan should you finish your goals early (or late). The plan is there for structure, accountability, and clarity about your goals, but it is also important to be flexible as you navigate the academic context. Personally, I look at my goals weekly to add and change things as they come up. I also create a plan for each semester to ensure I am prioritizing the important goals in my life.

Hidden Stories in My Cluttered Office

Christine Yeh, Professor of Education and Psychology, considers the objects, notes, and items in her office and how the clutter reveals special relationships and different kinds of hidden and unfinished stories.

Christine Yeh's drawer

In my desk, I have a catchall drawer with a random collection of objects, some necessary—a pair of black shoes, bags of “healthy” snacks—and others perhaps confusing things—a small hand-carved boat from Samoa, a marble from El Salvador, and an intricate weaving made of scrap paper and yarn. These “confusing” and rather unacademic items each have a story connected to it, but I often wonder if I have gone too far in contributing to the chaos of my daily life.

When I moved into a new office last summer, I seized the opportunity to purge my space of boxes of forgotten files, old data, and things that do not fit into any obvious work related category (think a pile of heart shaped rocks in a bowl). I Googled photos of “Zen office spaces” and studied Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing and paid particular attention to her thoughts on office cleaning. She offered the following insights and directions on how to create a space free of clutter:

  • Hold each book in your hand, and if it gives you a thrill of pleasure when you touch it, keep it. Otherwise, it must go.
  • If you think you’ll read a book “one day,” discard it.
  • If an item doesn’t spark joy for you, but is necessary to get work done, you may keep it.
  • Discard all paper unless in use, is needed for a limited period of time, or must be kept indefinitely.

I contemplated the hundreds of pages and papers that could justifiably be recycled according to her rules. These included my 9 years of ideas brainstorms, and sketches kept in colorful Japanese notebooks, ethnographic notes and memos from my international research travel journals, and personally revealing artwork from past students exploring their identities and culture on paper. My most meaningful keepsake is the partially completed picture book drawn on scrap paper by a 5th grade boy in Western Samoa, depicting the story of how he lost his family in the 2010 tsunami. He gave me this precious book because I was the first person in more than a year to ask him to share his story. He left the last few pages blank—unfinished—because his future was still unsure.

As I inspected my belongings, I realized that much of my clutter included different kinds of unfinished stories—blank pages that serve as a reminder of the work that is yet to be done, experienced, or imagined. My scribbles and sketches comprise urgent notes to self, fights I have yet to fight, and emotional rants about inequity that hold me accountable. I also wondered if I am particularly drawn to works in progress rather than the finished, printed, or framed final pieces as they are glimpses of the creative process and moments of possibilities. Where do these unfinished, incomplete, in progress stories, doodles, and projects fit into Kondo’s rules about what to keep?

I could also not let go of many objects in my secret drawer because they are symbols of connections I have made that inspire me to be the best version of my self. I find these items are especially grounding when I am feeling overwhelmed by the busy work of academia. It occurred to me that perhaps in our creative and scholarly work, our criteria for what to keep and what to toss includes Kondo’s ideas but may extend beyond whether or not an object “sparks joy” or has use and I came up with my own guiding questions for creating an inspiring office space.

  • Does the object inspire you?
  • Does it tell part of an important story in your history?
  • Does it symbolize a critical aspect of your multiple identities?
  • Does it highlight a journey or process you are experiencing?
  • Does it serve as a reminder of your vision for your work?

When I began cleansing my office according to Kondo’s rule, I picked up each book to see if it would “spark joy” as she requires in her philosophy. But as I held each book, joy was not the predominant feeling. Rather, I thought about the books that were difficult, intense, and heart-wrenching. These were books that were painfully transformative in my thinking about justice. Seeing these books on my shelf (organized by color to spark joy) provided historical evidence of my evolving identity as a researcher. As I flipped through the pages, I was reminded of why I entered academia in the first place. I was reminded of conversations I had with friends and colleagues. I contemplated and grappled with ideas about equity, and I felt deeply inspired.

I also tried to organize my papers and notebooks using my new rules around organizing for inspiration. I appreciated reading through pages of my writing in notebooks –snapshots of urgent ideas and passions for my work. Sadly, many of these reflections and raw emotions remain hidden in these journals as they are regularly deleted from my manuscripts by journal editors during the review process because they are not seen as “scholarly.” Keeping them nearby feels refreshingly humanizing as they hold me accountable to my vision and to the communities I partner with.

Prehistoric bird sculpture
Prehistoric woodfired stoneware bird by Simon Levin on quarter sawn oak.
Photo credit: Estella Pabonan

Kondo believes that if something does not spark joy, then you must get rid of it. Similarly, I repeatedly asked myself, “Does this inspire me?” as I went through each object in my cluttered space. Finding inspiration is unique to the individual, but I did find that the guiding questions I listed above helped me make decisions about what to cleanse. For example, the art featured in my office are mostly photographs, paintings, drawings, and sculptures from people I am close to—a prehistoric wood-fired stoneware bird head mounted on a thick piece of oak wood envisioned and created by a potter friend? Definitely keep. Scribbled note in Chinese from a second grade student I taught in Nan’ao village in Taiwan? Keep. Old handouts from meetings, workshops, and schedules? Recycle.

Though the heart of my research is outside of my office and in local and international communities, I find I need to be very intentional about creating a space at work that attempts to reflect the collective voice of these relationships. After many iterations and attempts at office organization, I may not have achieved the sparse Zen office I originally thought I wanted, but I feel I have created a space of experimentation and inspiration. Like the blank pages of my precious picture book from Samoa, this new space has an openness to the possible stories that are yet to come.

The CRASE OpEd Project

At the end of Spring 2016 semester, 20 faculty members from each school and college participated in the CRASE OpEd Project where they developed ideas for public scholarship by considering evidence-based arguments that are timely and have public value. During the two day workshop, participants learned about establishing credibility, structures of op-eds, and tips on refining and pitching their ideas.

op-ed project

When writing an op-ed, academics must first understand that their communication goals and style for writing are different than they write for scholarly journals. On the first day, much of the discussion focused on ways of establishing credibility through evidence, being right versus effective, and how to engage in larger conversations. The goal of an op-ed is to speak about your knowledge to a general audience without jargon and get the reader to say, “Tell me more.” Unlike traditional academic writing, it is useful to bring in your personal experience because it connects you to the reader in a way that data can’t.

In the op-ed, there’s a common structure to develop your argument with evidence. Start with a news hook to establish the case for why your op-ed is important now. Common hooks include employing a current event, anniversary, holiday, trend, release of new data, something in popular culture, or highlighting news that should be news. Throughout the op-ed, utilize various types of evidence and anticipate bias from the audience that you want to reach. An important component is to include the technique known as a “To Be Sure,” which addresses potential counter arguments in such a way that it is acknowledged but then persuasively dismissed.  For example, validate the counterargument and trump it with something more urgent or provide a personal caveat. It’s important to create a space to address your opposition with respect and to treat the audience as morally intelligent. In the conclusion, include a call to action that is specific and doable.

Using these ideas, participants developed drafts of their op-eds, and on the second day, they received feedback from their peers. The OpEd Project provides detailed resources on their website including basic op-ed structure, tips for op-ed writing, how to pitch, and submission information for over 100 outlets.

Many of our participants are currently working on their op-eds for submission.  Monisha Bajaj, Associate Professor of Education, published “Community Walks: A Day of Learning for Schools” on Teaching Tolerance. Violet Cheung, Associate Professor of Psychology, was featured on MTV News “The Stakes: Raw Heart Podcast Part 3.” Christina Chong, Assistant Professor of Law, published “Is Hollywood Still an All-White Boys Club?” with the American Bar Association. Lisa de la Rue, Assistant Professor of Education, published the op-ed “Teen in police scandal is a victim, not a ‘sex worker’” in the San Francisco Chronicle. Professor of Law Alice Kaswan published “As court weighs clean power plan, rule’s approach could reduce carbon emissions, improve public health” on The Hill. Assistant Professor of Education, Genevieve Negrón-Gonzales published “Democracy for Some, Not for All” on the Huffington Post. James Zarsadiaz, Assistant Professor of History, published “Why candidates should court Asian American voters” in the San Francisco Chronicle. Assistant Professor Desiree Zequera published “More than Nuance: Recognizing and Serving the Diversity of the Latina/o Community” on EdExcelencia Hispanic-Serving Institutions .

CRASE Online Writing Challenge

During CRASE Online Writing Challenge, 55 faculty members of all ranks and from each schools and college committed to writing at least 20 minutes a day for 14 days and participated in an online discussion group to share advice, offer support, and share progress. Facilitators from CRASE shared daily quotes, writing tips, and reminders to keep participants motivated and focused.

Over the course of two weeks, faculty wrote over 202,379 words and logged over 34,065 minutes of writing. Faculty completed a range of projects including book chapters, articles, policy briefs, conference papers, and blog posts. The challenge proved to not only foster productivity but also created a strong support network for faculty. Below are some examples of the feedback we received.

“I felt compelled to push myself to write everyday since I was accountable to a group. No one forced me to write, but I knew that I had to fill out my daily writing log. I also felt inspired by the comments the other participants wrote about their processes.”

“[I] completed two book chapters and one revise/resubmit to a top tier journal.”

“[I wrote the] first draft of this article. I’ve never written in this way (another binge writer), but I’m glad I’m doing it. I will try to continue the process until my draft is finished, but it will be hard to keep at it without the challenge. It also reminded me how much I enjoy writing.”

“This challenge far surpassed my expectations!! The support of others on a daily basis, the simple reflective discussion questions on writing to more broadly tap into why we do what we do, and a private log for personal progress all hit the mark on so many levels. And 20 minutes is almost always feasible, and a great way to keep your finger on the pulse of the project.”

“The Writing Challenge has reminded me how difficult it is to write regularly, especially when my teaching responsibilities increase at times during the semester. I’m thankful for this challenge and the support of all you online writers! I usually criticize myself for needing the structure of writing teams, writing retreats and this online challenge — I should be able to do it myself, right? But lately I’ve shifted my thinking instead to one of gratitude. It is what it is — very difficult to carve out regular writing time when you have responsibilities other than writing, and these writing communities help me carve out the time I need. Thank you!”

CRASE will be hosting another Online Writing Challenge in Fall 2016.

How to come up with an interesting and meaningful blog post or public scholarship.

Rick Ayers, Assistant Professor in Teacher Education at the University of San Francisco and Huffington Post blogger, walks through his process for writing a blog post with a bunch of tacked on advice, ideas, and encouragements.

A walk through my writing process and a bunch of tacked on advice, ideas, and encouragements.

Knowledge is socially constructed. So are blog posts. To write a piece of public advocacy is not accomplished by you sitting staring at the screen.  It is the result of ongoing engagement – with colleagues, with the public, with your classes.  Often a blog post is strung together from wide-ranging conversations you have had, including some insights you have gotten and others you picked up from others.

I remember the debates about the Vietnam War when I was a freshman at the University of Michigan.  I knew I was against the war but was not adept at all the arguments.  When some students raised a protest against military recruiting on campus, hundreds of people gathered in front of the army table.  I would argue with someone until I got stuck on a point.  Then I would wander around and listen to other debates, searching for someone who could answer the point that stumped me.  Then I would return to the fray.  It was a roiling mass of people, made up of dozens of smaller discussions.  And it was a powerful education in debate and how to engage and persuade.

Unfortunately, academics often see ourselves as isolated, toiling away in offices and libraries.  But engaged scholarship calls on us to be engaged in the debates in the world, to always be alert to issues that are impacting communities and to arguments that need to be heard.  You will never craft the best argument while just in that cubicle.  You have to be testing it out, as during the Vietnam debates, to hone your point and help make it understandable. Kevin Kumashiro often talks about our responsibility to be “framing” the debates, looking at the fundamental assumptions that drive a policy and how to challenge them. I reject the idea that knowledge is “created” at the university level.  Knowledge is in practice, in the community.  Our contribution is to understand struggles on the ground and how to represent and advance those struggles.

How to get started:   Start with a moment.  Not a constructed story for an article but actually something that happened that got you thinking.  If you pay attention to your interactions, these will come up as the genesis of pieces.  For me this might be a classroom interaction, a demonstration or event in the community, or even driving and listening to NPR.  Even if you don’t start your blog post with this story, you write it down.

This also suggests that you should use the first person pronoun and point of view.  Well, not always.  But quite often you should.  At least I think you should in order to find your voice and to move into a more relaxed, genuine way of writing.  When I first started writing for Huffington Post, an editor gave me the advice to “write like you are sending an email to a friend.”  That is a great idea.  I try to do that but in fact my pieces end up being a bit more formal than an email – they really are small essays.  But at least thinking of an email moves one off the “stuck” place of staring at the screen.  And it pushes the style to a more mass audience, not an academic one.

To start:  An interaction, discomfort.  Describe the picture.

So below is an example of an incident I experience that troubled me, as I began to wonder if this is something I should pursue and write about:

Committee meeting, representatives from different constituencies.

“The problem is,” I ventured, “there is very little you can tell from a standardized test of students and then to tie evaluation of that teacher to performance of those students becomes even less valid and finally trying to compare professional development graduates to other teachers is just a fool’s errand.”  That was my intervention in the discussion, a big dissention blurted out.

It was a meeting of a collaboration group for an innovative summer professional development teaching project – I was a visiting professor in a medium-sized California city, Charley was from the professional development non-profit and Greg was from the school district.  We were discussing evaluation data to send to the granting agencies and Charles had suggested that we collect “Better Balance” test scores from our graduates and compare to other teachers.  I was immediately doubtful – not only that this measure would distort and narrow the teaching practices of our graduates, but that it would provide support and validation for the advocates of value added evaluation across the state.

Greg, the district guy, showed no interest in my comment.  He did not even raise himself to disagree or debate me.  He simply declared, “The superintendent wants these numbers (on the test) and we are collecting them so they can be used as data.”  The look in his eyes, the subtext of his dismissal, was essentially, “What is this pinhead talking about?  It’s irrelevant.”

Charles actually agreed with me.  He is a progressive educator who knows the debates and the game.  Why, then, had he made this proposal?  It was, of course, the pressure of the grant.  Both foundation and federal grants for the professional development program required “quantitative” data to determine if our graduates were effective.

Now I realized that this article might put Charles, Greg, me in a difficult situation.  While I had fictional names for the main characters, I decided to go back and fictionalize the place and the program.  Still probably a weak disguise but the best I could do.

Extending the idea:

So there was an idea, a conflict.  How did I regard it?  What was behind it?  And, even now, I had to think: if I were to write it up, what is the audience, who needs to hear about this, why would I write it up?  I began to think about people working in these different spaces, the non-profits, the universities, the school districts, and the built-in tension between their missions.  They could use a discussion and clarification – and this article could contribute to that.  More broadly, what does this situation tell us about problems in education policy and the corporate “reform” agenda?

So this is the period of reflection, open-ended exploration of the issue.  For some people that means writing a mind map, a web, or simply notes.  It is also a time to talk to others about the problem, the issue.

In the course of writing this piece, I talked to a lot of colleagues about this issue –  Sepehr, Lance, Monisha, Uma, Lillian.  I wasn’t always asking for input, I was just trying to explain the point, see how it would take, how to best articulate it.

The first thing I was thinking about was the problem for non-profits, the problem people in these positions have because they have to fulfill requirements of the grant in order to get the next phase of the grant paid.  I thought about other institutions I know who face tensions and challenges to their mission because of the demands of the grants.  I have seen this is places like Youth Speaks and Youth Radio.  They start with a radical, outside-the-box project and they are wildly popular with youth who flock to them, turning their backs on formal schooling.  Then the non-profit finds itself trying to sustain a staff and a budget and go for grants. And the grants insist that they take these youth and turn them back towards the schools, that they show “progress” in matriculation, grades, etc.  I have been in discussions with people in these non-profits and have also discussed the problem from the other side, as my brother was on the board of the Woods Fund in Chicago and they struggled with how to make their grant structures more honest.  I reflected on how difficult it is to be in a grant-driven non-profit. That was the context within which I recognized the different positionality of Charles, for instance, from me.  So I wrote:

The challenge for Charles was that he was ruled by the terms of the grant.  And for the grant he had to bring data – proof of success.  Some data could be qualitative (reports from teachers, supervisors, principals, students) but some had to be quantitative.  People who live by grants find themselves spending a lot of time worrying about the reporting, the data.  And often the terms of grants practically compel the recipients to be fraudulent, to make things up.  Because most grants require that you define problem and then declare that when you get so many thousands of dollars you will provide a solution of the problem.  But too often the problems are deep, structural, and difficult to move the needle on. Open-ended grants might allow projects that are exploratory or generative for participants.  But generally grants are for some kind of linear “improvement.” 

While in education research studies, “value added” teacher evaluation (basically evaluating teacher effectiveness by tracking improvements in the test scores of their students) has been demonstrated to be invalid, Charles felt compelled to put that idea in the assessment package.  

Rereading and editing:

I went back and read the draft a few times.  I noticed that I said “discussed” and “problem” a few times in the same sentence so I did some clean-up, drawing in new words.

Sometimes I just had to rewrite for clarity.  I had written:

Open-ended grants might allow projects that are exploratory or generative for participants.  But generally grants are for some kind of linear “improvement.” 

But the problem was that this sentence butted in too abruptly after the last one.  Is a grant being “open-ended” in contrast to the grants I’m discussing in the paragraph? Yes it is but I have to make that more clear.  Thus:

If you manage to get an open-ended grant, this might allow projects that are exploratory or generative for participants.  But generally grants in education demand some kind of linear “improvement.” 

There are a lot of thoughts packed in these 2 sentences but I also don’t want the blog to get over-long.  Are these sentences simple enough to allow me to go on? But do they carry the thought I’m trying to communicate?

Halfway through it was important to stop and ask a question to myself.  What is this piece about?  It’s not just about my discomfort at raising the objection to value added assessment.  It’s about how our different approaches to data-gathering arose not from the facts but from our different positions, who we reported to.  I’m taking the long way around to try to defend the university as an organization crucial to open inquiry and real progress.  So I had to explain more about grant-driven, foundation-funded educational projects.

And I had found myself in this meeting wondering about my privilege, the flip side of the discomfort felt by scholars of color when they intervene in such a situation.  For them, the subjective pressure, communicated through raised eyebrows and lowered gazes, tells them that they are not academically worthy, they are being emotional.  For me, in the white privileged side, the internal question reads more like:  who am I to raise this methodological objection? Who is this privileged academic to make the pathway for our student teachers, and the access to grant money, difficult for his abstract concerns?

Indeed, in my high school teaching and in teacher education, I am always mindful of my responsibility to support marginalized students through the gatekeepers even as I argue and debate that the gatekeepers are invalid.  To not do the former would be to sacrifice students in front of me who are doing well to my radical vision; to not do the latter is to sacrifice the futures of the vast majority of my students in the project of courting success for the lucky few.  So I was also seeking a tone that was not arrogant, not preachy; rather it was to simply point out the material structures that underlay the discussion.

At this point I started reflecting on a talk I heard some years ago by Arundhati Roy about the negative impact of NGO’s on radical social movements.  Also I was thinking back on a section we had on the Freedom Schools in Mississippi in 1964 that demonstrated what independent activism looked like.  I was not sure if I was wandering too far afield from my main point; but it seemed to be the best way to jump to a broader analysis of the problem.  I signaled the transition to this reflection with a one-sentence paragraph.

How does the world of non-profits, the social justice enterprise funded by grants, affect our work?

Some years ago, Indian novelist and activist Arundhati Roy made a scathing critique of the role of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in containing social movements even as they “professionalize” activism.  Her point was that many activists who in the past would have gone into radical, non-sanctioned, community-based liberation organizations were now being brought into NGOs – where they could make a decent salary and where their every move was framed by grant reporting – long proposals, narrow goals, and constrained possibilities.  It was the kind of “repressive tolerance” of sponsored dissent that Marcuse had warned against.

Writing an outline halfway through:

And there was still a jumble of things I wanted to say.  So I made a rough bullet-point outline as to where I thought this was going, so I could just elaborate and explain each of the points:

  • Arundhati Roy – C Cobb
  • Foundations so big. Federal government now competitive grants.
  • Two points:  1)  they are big because of tax issue;  2)  they are authoritarian.
  • Universities.  Regarded as out of touch.  Foundations as source of money → Opposite of tenure or union protection

I also came across this article that demonstrates federal support for privatization, which, much like federal dollars for segregated housing after World War II, has long term impacts.

Generally in this writing I make no footnotes and no references to another author.  For example I wrote a piece a few weeks ago about the police.  I asserted that the police are the only people in society who are allowed by the state to use “legitimate violence.”  This phrase is something that Walter Benjamin coined in the 30’s in discussion of the state and repression.  I could have put a footnote.  Or I could have said, “what Walter Benjamin called ‘legitimate violence.’”  But really, why?  If anyone asked me more about this, I could point them to Benjamin.  Otherwise I could just claim and use the phrase because, well because it is a great way to put it.  That is a way of owning an idea and asserting one’s authority with the idea.  Academics often find themselves footnoting and referencing others throughout their prose.  Try writing with no references – just to feel how liberating it is.

And after making an outline of how I would end it, I sometimes would just throw down random sentences, notes to self, as to how I planned to argue the point.  For example:

Under grant you are cowering
When I raise a criticism of testing or value added, I feel like an egghead, out of touch with reality.  Reality is the grant. 

Problem of foundations have money because capitalists keep all profits
Taxes should have taken some of these resources – created by social labor – for democratic determination of where to go.

Foundations run things.

So I wrote:

Nonprofit organizations inside the US occupy the same space.  People who want to improve conditions for oppressed students, who want to challenge inequities, are not leading demonstrations in Jackson, Mississippi, or in Oakland, California.  Instead they are working for improvement within foundation and government-funded nonprofits.  The revolution may not be televised but apparently it will be funded.

It makes me think back to the Mississippi Freedom Schools that started as an adjunct to the voter education organizing there in 1964.  Charlie Cobb wrote up a proposal for the freedom school project.  Where today under a foundation grant it would be a 25-page (or a 200 page!) document with extensive claims about the situation they were facing and the exact outcomes they planned to achieve, Cobb’s proposal was two pages long and defined exactly the purpose of the schools.  It is a document that launched one of the most dynamic educational initiatives in the US and today is still studied as a classic artifact of movement history.

Certainly funding is a good thing.  Initiatives for change should be funded and organizing campaigns need resources.  But the question of who is doing the funding and what their underlying goals are – this is the rub.  Too often, the fundamental world view and values of the funders are written into the kinds of problems they will entertain and kinds of measurements they demand to determine success.  In this way, funding takes a social change project off track.

And foundations, private funding, have become such a huge part of the educational landscape that we accept without question that so many projects should be sustained by these kinds of grants.  Indeed the federal government, whose responsibility is to raise money through taxes and disperse it to communities for their education projects, now mimics the private sector – only giving out most funds through competitive grants.  Indeed, the largest of the grants we were discussing about the professional development program was a federal competitive grant.

One problem we have is that we tend to get caught up on our present reality, normalize it as if that’s the way it has to be. Living in the grant-driven world, channeling our social justice activism through non-profits, makes us begin to think this is just the way things are.  In this way, the hegemonic mind-set of neo-liberal market-driven systems colonizes our minds.  And how did it come to be this way? 

Trying to wrap it up:

This discussion about foundations making education policy takes me back to a point Mike Klonsky in Chicago made to me many years ago.  It is something that has stuck with me.  And I have said it often while speaking or teaching.  It is this:  The reason foundations are over rich and able to set policy is simply that they are not being taxed enough.  Those resources the1% hoard are produced by social labor and in general tax policies are there to collect some of those resources to use for broader social purposes – building roads, supporting schools and health care, etc.  This method suggests that there will be at least a somewhat democratic process in decisions about the disposition of those resources.

So I wrote:

One of the main culprits in this shameful development is the changing tax structure.  Starting after World War II but accelerating ridiculously in Reagan era, the taxing of the wealthy has changed enormously.  Where excess wealth created by society was once gathered through taxes and then distributed through at least somewhat democratic decision-making processes, now it goes almost exclusively into the pockets of the one per cent.  How does the Broad Foundation, the Gates Foundation, the Walton Foundation have all these billions of dollars?  It is because they have not been taxed enough.  Resources that should be distributed through public projects are now in the pockets of individuals.

It follows then that the structure of grants and their reporting responsibility is a much more authoritarian way to make decisions than the democratic process of a community deciding how to prioritize education projects through a locally elected board.  The grant does not ask your opinion.  The grant says:  do this, do that.  It establishes instrumental goals, goals directed towards narrow, concrete outcomes that can be quantified.  And we see evidence every day that the federal government is completely bought into the privatization project, restructuring education like top-down corporations.

Looking back on the piece so far,  I reflected that it is an important issues and one I could try to reframe the discussion on.  But the title was boring.  I had called it, “Foundations and the Dumbing Down of Activism,” and, while that said something of what I wanted, the very first word “foundations” was going to put people to sleep.  I’m thinking now of calling it “The Revolution Will Not Be Funded.”  That does not explain much of what will be in the piece but it will grab attention.

Now the piece was driving towards the end.  I had jotted down some other notes at the bottom of the page about the university and open inquiry:

But actually academic world is what it should be – freer.  Under grants they must bow down.  Actually you want the deeper read.  Grantees don’t go deep.  Backward planning. 

Why universities with inquiry built the greatest educational system in the world.

When I raise a criticism of testing or value added, I feel like an egghead, out of touch with reality.  Reality is the grant.  But actually academic world is what it should be – freer.  Under grants they must bow down.  Actually you want the deeper read.  Grantees don’t go deep.  Backward planning.  Why universities with inquiry built the greatest educational system in the world.

This would not be at all how I would write the ending but it contains, in raw form, thoughts I wanted to communicate.  I hesitated to claim that US universities were the “greatest education system in the world” but I wanted to defend university freedoms.  I need to think about that a little more.  Also, there is a contradiction between the position that Arundhati Roy was extoling for activists – outsider, volunteer, community based guerrillas – and the position of university professor as somehow a better place to be than a non-profit.   Many community organizers I knew in the 60’s left universities precisely because they were too constrained.  But I don’t think I can go into all that.  I’ll probably just leave this contradiction unaddressed.

So I wrote:

So the awkward moment when I raised objection to value added measurement truly reflected the different positionality of the three people in the room.  When I raised the criticism of testing measures, I seemed like an abstract-thinking egghead, out of touch with reality.  But such framing accepts the grant and its demands as reality, something not to be questioned.  And it reminded me why universities are important. 

Yes, universities that grant tenure, that allow freedom of inquiry, that protect professors to say aloud what they see.  Universities now are under attack.  According to the critics from the business world, universities have not enough clear outcomes, not enough measures of success.  But the very open nature of university-based research and inquiry is what made the US educational system the most powerful engine for knowledge and understanding, the envy of the rest of the world.  The narrowing of the university, the constraining of the inquiries of faculty through grant-driven projects, disallows us from pursuing the truth.  Someone has to be in the room to declare the emperor’s new clothes to be a fraud.  I felt fortunate to have the protection of my position in the university.  But more and more, that is a voice that is silenced by the power of the foundations and now the federal government, who control the budgets.

Writing style:

I have made a number of comments along the way about writing style:  write it like an email, think of a mass audience, use first person, leave out references.  I would only add that you can find much of this kind of writing all over the place.  Check out social media.  Read Truthout, Jezebel, and Salon.  Follow polemics, about issues large and small.  Read New York Times for ideas.  Always read Valerie Strauss column in the Washington Post.

I’m not even sure that I like this so much.  It is fascinating to me but would anyone want to read it?  Am I reaching for too many points?  At this point, I would show the draft around to some of my friends and co-conspirator writers.  Get feedback and edits.  Then submit.