13 min read

Dissertating on Rhetoric, Cults, and Naming Names

a microphone on a stand in front of a stained glass window
Photo credit: Ludovica Neagoe

Welcome to my newsletter where I'm going to be writing words about words written by others and then ask you to read those words. It’s not really critiquing the state of the discourse or offering suggestions on how we make it better. More pointing at words (and images and sounds) that caught my attention and saying, “I noticed this.” Lloyd Dobler would be proud. My plan is write words about words (and images and sounds) with the goal of identifying why we use them and what we hope to accomplish by adding them to the discourse.

Rhetoric and/or discourse

It’s my understanding that, in a nutshell, I’ve just described the field of rhetoric studies. My first real exposure to the field came while I was working on a piece about gender coding in schools and read Jessica Enoch’s fantastic article about the rhetoric regarding the shifting nature of teaching in 1830s America. I’m not a rhetorician (James A. Herrick, in The History and Theory of Rhetoric: An Introduction uses the term rhetor to describe “an individual engaged in creating or presenting rhetorical discourse” [p. 7]. What a great word.) but I do, as I shared in the introductory post, spend a lot of time thinking about the words we use in education.

At its most basic, discourse around schools and education is about two things: ideas and persuasion. Sometimes the ideas are our own little brain babies, sometimes they're others and we're part of getting the baby safely to adulthood. When the discourse is in service to a shared idea, it usually means little persuasion; no need to change minds as we're already on the same page. We're singing in the same choir. We've found our people, etc. That discourse is a lovely, encouraging part of the education landscape. Social media, though, encourages the other kind. The kind where we wade into the discourse, carrying the banner for our idea, work to persuade others to listen (or expect them to listen because obviously, we're right), to change their actions to help us fulfill our brain baby’s destiny. The evidence in education the education discourse is overwhelming that when someone doesn’t return the love or see the perfection of our brain baby, we have things to say.

In/Out Groups and Word Choice

Because we are pattern-making animals, we’ve come up a number of words to categorize that sense of belonging we have with our fellow advocates or idea-havers, and our disdain, dislike, or discomfort with those who do not. “Tribalism” was even the word of the year for 2017. But as Geoff Nunberg describes in that piece for Fresh Air, we don’t agree on how to use the word, it’s fairly fraught, and doesn’t allow space for movement. A better way of describing the dynamics around ideas and persuasion is likely the social identity theory of “in-group” and “out-group.” As a framing device, it’s looser and more flexible—our shared membership in a group with someone can shift based on the idea at hand. This notion of in/out group helps us better understand why we can agree with strangers and feel like we’re in community with those we’ve never met before.

It also helps consider, or re-consider, our communication goals when we talk to or about people who are out-group. As an example, I will freely offer that if you use the phrase drink the Kool-Aid, I am not likely to join your group, regardless of your idea.

I have no connection to anyone involved with Jonestown but James D. Richardson did and he's asked us to stop using it. I don’t fault anyone for not knowing the history of the phrase, but at the same time, I understand where former Representative Jackie Speier is coming from when she talks about the phrase. Speier was there as part of a fact-finding mission and still carries the scars.

There was nothing about it that was a suicide … They were killed, they were murdered, they were massacred. You can’t tell me that an infant or a two-year-old child that was injected with cyanide does so voluntarily. And that horrible phrase now that is part of our language ‘drinking the Kool-Aid’ is always one that sends me into orbit because I think people so misunderstand what took place there.

Even when the context makes sense, even when your brain baby is awesome, I'm going to struggle to adopt your idea if we don't know each other and you use the phrase in a piece about your idea. (If we know each other, I'll likely ask your permission to offer you unsolicited feedback and suggest a rewrite.) Tell me like the author of this 2016 blog post about getting people on board did to "get your Dixie cups, stir up some Kool-Aid, and start passing it out for free" and oof, buddy.

The Common Core adoption period was a messy, messy time for ideas and persuasion. Not really sure, though, what this author hoped to accomplish by accusing Common Core advocates of being like Jim Jones.

All the while we hear the mantra of step right up and be college and career ready, just take a sip of this Kool-aid and all will be right.

My long-standing dislike of the phrase is likely why I starting frowning at how the word cult is so often used to describe those in a given out-group. At this particular moment in time, the idea is reading instruction and so we end up with comments like this.

I've posted several threads on this topic but wanted to call your attention to a useful new essay on how biased media coverage fuels the Science of Reading cult.

Or this.

… in a country built on the idea that free, competent public education is the bedrock to the success of individuals and society in general, the most dangerous cult is the one that promotes unscientific methods of teaching reading.

The author of the two-part essay, Culty as Charged: Why the Speech to Print Movement Needs Brakes, is part of the structured reading instruction community and is, I think, trying to reclaim or redirect the term while also wielding it against others.

I’m not saying you’re in a cult, but if you call yourself a ‘Brand Name’ practitioner/school/trainer, there’s a bit of a problem. And that problem occurs when your method is touted as the method to end all methods. That problem occurs when the only tool in your toolbox is fairly blunt, and when you’re expressly forbidden to use ‘outside’ tools even though you know you should … It happens in the cult of balanced literacy, and it’s beginning to happen with disturbing frequency in S2P circles now too.

To recap: if you advocate for/are associated with the Science of Reading, you're in a cult. If you advocate for/are associated with balanced reading, you're in a cult. If you do S2P incorrectly, you (may) be in a cult.

What do with that? My instinct is to reach out to the authors to ask about their word choice. I know, though, I would be annoyed if someone I did not know, someone I have no relationship with or to, reached out to ask me about a word I used in a tweet or blog post. But also, I want to know. To be sure I've reached out to lots of people about words in the education discourse and I look forward to sharing them with you. My hunch is that the linked authors above would all say they're using the word in a colloquially sense. They don't really think the members of the out-group are in a cult. But also, an advocate tweeted:

I’m starting to really believe that those who think .... are effective are in a cult.

I'm torn about naming names and have been for a while. A few months ago, I saw Doug Lemov tweeting about taking notes while teaching and immediately texted my friend, Angela Stockman. I then tweeted a screenshot of Lemov’s tweet but didn’t tag him. I remain confident Mr. Lemov does not worry himself about my opinion of his word choice.

I reached out to Angela, a brilliant scholar and one of the most reflective thinkers I know about the tweet. And shared my twofold struggle: how we use words and names when we want to draw attention to how words are used. She kindly volunteered her time to help me think through the issue of calling-in/out. Of naming people in the discourse. I’m still thinking it through and deeply appreciate the points she raised. My questions to her are in bold.

Let’s start at the beginning. What’s your opinion on Doug’s column? Is what he’s doing Pedagogical Documentation? If not, what makes PD different from what he’s describing? 

Documentation is not pedagogical unless substantive reflection is involved. Documenting our learning is a bit different than documenting in order to assess others’ learning. When we document our learning, we take care to create learning experiences that enable the learners to make the learning visible. Then, we make observations and document what we see and hear. We reflect inasmuch as we can in process, but often, the best reflections are made after the learning moment has passed. This is when many organize, display, and share their data with others--including the students who were involved. They create interpretations of that learning together, and it typically informs and even shifts our thinking, what we learn next, and our work (including lesson plans). I would describe what Doug is doing as documentation of a learning moment in order to serve learners better. It’s lightly pedagogical--the teacher reflects long enough to make more ideal instructional choices in the moment perhaps. That’s an important purpose, and I think it counts as pedagogical documentation. In my book, I try to emphasize the fact that pedagogical documentation has many purposes, and there are different ways to practice it….his might be one way. It’s not the only way, though. 

It’s impossible to know what hits other people’s radars but I’m pretty confident he didn’t see my tweet, much less have an opinion on it. He has his groove and lane and that’s where he will stay. But, let’s say he puts out his new book and there’s no mention of the originators’ research and he has what we might call less than ideal citational politics. Do we storm the castle at dawn? Let it go? 

Once upon a time, a woman we both knew and loved suggested that many people in the field often think alike. I also find that there are many people who don’t know what they don’t know, and when they have new experiences or make new discoveries in their own work, it’s easy to think they are novel discoveries. This happened to me when I used grounded theory to investigate resistance in my writing workshops and studio. I grounded the first two cycles of research in the lived experiences of the people I was trying to serve--my students. And the “make writing” stuff rose to the service. Those were codes in the data, and well--I sure felt that those discoveries were unique. It wasn’t until I did that third round of research, which compelled me to return to the “literature of the field” that I realized otherwise. To be sure, I had to research outside of the field of English/language arts (and you pushed me here--go look at anthropology and history and linguistics you said, although you might not remember…you did). I found multiliteracy researchers there. That’s when I became friends and colleagues with Trevor Aleo. J. Palmeri. Shawna. They were reading widely as well, and multimodal composition was a thing. The difference in what my research surfaced was process…the make writing stuff is about making the process of writing multimodal and not just aiming for multimodal final compositions. 

I try to keep this in mind whenever anyone in the field appears to be making claims without citing their sources. Pedagogical documentation is Carlina Rinaldi and Loris Malaguzzi’s baby, I think. Harvard’s Project Zero folks do much with visible learning as well, and there is a Venn diagram there. And the thrust of Hattie’s research is about knowing our impact as instructors, so he’s a part of this conversation as well. 

I don’t know that Doug knows Reggio-inspired educators. I am certain he doesn’t know me. He likely may not know Silvia Tolisano and Janet Hale’s work with documentation either. But you’d think he was aware of Project Zero and Hattie. 

Storm the castle at dawn? Uh, no. Never been my style. I tend to let things go because often, what I view as “my work” isn’t “my” work alone, and at the end of the day, I tend to think that the whole point of publishing and sharing is to ensure that teachers--and especially students--are getting access to good practice. We need lots of voices here. Doug has huge reach--good for him and them. I think there is much to suggest he hasn’t done deep research here and just doesn’t know what he hasn’t bothered to know. 

Do you, from where you sit and engage in the discourse, see value in naming people directly who are saying less than kind things about a teacher or teachers in general? Do you subscribe to naming and calling out/in, ignore and hope they go away? Something else? 

I see great value in speaking to those people directly, if I know them--yes.

This is your, what, fourth book? Have you noticed your language and word choice change since your first book? Especially when it comes to how you talk about teachers and their practice?

It’s my seventh. :) (Editor’s note: I am a terrible friend.)

Yes, I actually switched publishers because I wasn’t very comfortable with the frames I was expected to use. I like assuming a reflective posture, sharing my stories, and offering invitations. It’s important to me to cite my sources as well as I’m able, thank people for their contributions to my own learning, and put people in the rooms I’m in when I speak to my work. There are some publishers who want authors to position themselves as authorities, share instructions, and use a far more directive tone. They market them as geniuses and push them up on pedestals. That’s a psychological approach that sells books. Selling books is important. It also breeds a false confidence that is really dangerous, in my experience. I once had someone try to market something I wrote as “life saving.” That was incredibly dishonest and irresponsible. I never worked with that person again. 

So yeah--I will always be intentional about how I position myself in the field. I’m a learner, and I’m willing to share what I’m learning with others, if it’s useful. I’m more interested in people doing and sharing their own learning than lifting and dropping my ideas into their practice, though. I think we might serve children--and one another--better this way. 

What do you see as advantages to the current level of discourse around teachers and teaching? Disadvantages?

I think that there are so many channels, outlets, platforms, and rooms to chat in--that’s a good thing. Ideas are shared, tested, tinkered with, and improved upon. People feel less alone in the work. I have colleagues all over the globe, and that matters to me. It can be hard to find our people at home. Networked learning has been everything to me. 

When you refer to “current levels of discourse” I wonder which/whose discourse you’re referring to. In some communities, teachers are “superheroes.” In others, they’re ignorant or lazy. In others, they’re martyrs--always accepting abuse for the good of the children. In others, they are caught between a rock and a hard place--teachers can’t win in some spaces. In others, they’re all of those things, and the narrative shifts in service to the speaker.  Teachers are who they say they are, and what they say changes, depending on their interests and needs. 

I find myself fortunate to be in the synchronous company of many brilliant and talented educators who don’t really engage on social media. The discourse around teachers and teaching is very different in those spaces. It isn’t as much of a performance there. This matters, I think. What happens online is very real--I don’t deny that. It also lacks transparency. It’s hard to be honest or authentic when you know you have a great, big audience watching what you say and do. It’s also difficult to have truly complex and challenging conversations on a stage. Disagreement can be shaming when an audience is gathered, and that’s why I will very rarely disagree with anyone on social. I don’t want to play a part in making anyone feel that way--even unintentionally. Even if they are truly awful human beings. When we’re putting people on the spot or provoke shame (even unintentionally) learning stops, in my experience. Compassion does as well. When we put people on the spot or shame them, I find that it's more difficult for them to maintain their own compassion. We armor up, cognitively, emotionally, socially. Minds aren’t changed. Tensions become unproductive. I think the current level of discourse about teachers and teaching--in online spaces at least--is the product of this reality, to an extent. 

So there’s sort of a feedback loop? 

I suppose so, yes. I'm sensitive to the fact that when we engage in complex discussions on the social stage, we craft what we say for a wider audience. Emotions are heightened. Perspective is harder to maintain because it's often a much noisier exchange. We're a bit more protective than we might be in a less visible setting. That shapes the environment which shapes the people which shapes the discourse and around we go.

There is this subtle and not so subtle pressure to be dissatisfied and even disgruntled. If you aren’t, you must be naive. A fool. Or privileged. We’re supposed to take it personally. That’s what “smart” and “courageous” people do. 

How do we get past that and shift “the discourse" if we aren’t willing to share a different narrative and teach and learn in ways that disrupt the popular and pain-filled ones? 

I totally hear what you’re saying. I’m always struggling with negotiating with what that looks like on social media. How do we engage with others without doing the things you mentioned. Without failing at it. 

I love documenting my learning because it took the charge out of failure for me. I stopped taking it personally when students weren’t showing up as I expected them to in my company. I got curious instead. And that made me hopeful. 

I need hopeful discourse, and when I say hopeful, I’m not slinging saccharine cliches. I’m talking about having a vision, understanding the distance between here and there, crafting plans, and seeking agency. Then, assessing, reflecting, and iterating as we go. That breeds hope. That’s the kind of discourse I want to be a part of. 

I’m not the one who will break things that need to be broken. And I acknowledge that much must be broken.

I’m the one who will build, when I’m able. 

In gratitude for Angela’s time, a donation has been made to Stitch Buffalo.  Interested in sharing your thoughts about discourse? Please reach out!