Who Determines Literacy?

I was reading this article over at VSB today, and it got me thinking about the definition of literacy. Now, this is something we analyzed in my summer course about literacy, and I learned that the old binary between literate and illiterate is hopelessly outdated, like many things in education.

Yet we are still using the phrase “financial literacy” to describe teaching certain skills to people who don’t have a lot of money.

Now, do some poor people make unwise decisions with their spending? Sure. Because they’re people, and people make unwise decisions. Does it follow that being rich means you’ve necessarily been smart with your money? No. It just means you’ve been lucky.

We discuss “financial literacy” as though it is something we wise people can bestow upon the heathens pounding rocks in caves, when the truth of the matter is, being well-versed in financial systems would truly entail being made deeply aware of how few opportunities being poor afford people. I say this as a person who has never been poor and is unlikely to be. I’ve been “broke,” temporarily, and entirely because I was dumb. But you can’t stupid your way into poverty, you can only reside there by birth or due to lack of opportunity, or both.

It’s not too different from the language education field I am seeking to change, or the “appropriateness” analyzed within raciolinguistics. You know who needs “financial literacy?” It’s all the rest of us, who need to become deeply aware of how our systems are constructed to prevent escape from poverty. If the rest of us became “financially literate,” some would still choose not to care, but I can bet more of us would change our priorities and fight back against a system that harms so many.

This is easy for me to say from my academic perch as I enter 20th grade with my health insurance (and good health) and all. But we really don’t need to teach poor people better habits so much as we need to give them an actual opportunity to have access to money and power. We don’t do it because, in our view, it would come at our expense, and we want to win more than we want to be fair.

You know who’s financially literate? The president is, because he knows exactly how not smart you can be and get continually rescued by the system that values you because of your status. (If he truly believed he was smart and wasn’t scared he was stupid, he wouldn’t talk about his intelligence so much.) And people without money know the system better than most of us just because they can see and feel how it treats them.

Until we actually support our fellow citizens – and I am no economist with ideal solutions for how to do so – teaching them how to put an extra dollar away is just a stopgap. We should probably still do it anyway, though, because the system isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Technical Problems

Reading an article for school (which doesn’t start for a few weeks, and this article isn’t due until Mid-September, but I gotta be me), and came across an interesting re-definition of the term “technical.”

I’m paraphrasing, but the piece (in a book for which we don’t have the full citation, my apologies, but the chapter is called “The Heart of Danger”) makes the point that there are two types of changes, technical and adaptive. Adaptive change is the riskier, more uncomfortable sort, the type that makes people feel their competence is being questioned as their habits are examined. Whenever I posit some theory related to race and education, I’m mostly talking about what these authors call adaptive changes. Case in point, one article to which I continue to refer describes poor attendance at a community education program and interviews both students and teachers. The students say, explicitly, that the program underestimated and ignored them, while the teachers and administrators insisted that people stopped attending due to logistical issues (eg scheduling). In other words, the people in charge needed to make adaptive changes but dismissed this notion to focus on ineffective technical changes.

I think about this in my current job. I can’t get too much into it, but suffice it to say that a large portion of my job is developing training courses on a governement database and its many features. We are told, by our clients, that we need to focus on what this piece I’m reading would call technical changes, in this case steps and processes that the workers need to learn and adapt to in order to succeed at their jobs.

But when it comes down to it, a lot of these scenarios require adaptive changes. Organizations and the people within them need the ability and willingness (and I think the latter is the key) to question their assumed competence and their ingrained habits. Maybe they don’t actually need to change very much once they take a good look. But they need to be willing to consider the possibility, and self-analysis by management is itself a necessary adaptive change.

For as long as we try to assume all issues are caused by technical problems rather than adaptive ones, we will fail to effect lasting change. But for the folks in charge, maybe that’s a feature and not a bug.

My “Unstandardized English” podcast

I created a podcast. (There aren’t any episodes yet. )

My wife, who is usually right about what I want even before I realize I want something, thinks I should talk about “all of the things [I] like to talk about” (that’s a direct quote) in podcast form.  Years ago I would have ignored this advice. I put up a protest when she suggested it.

Reasons why I tried to weasel my way out of it:

  • I don’t like my voice
  • I don’t have time
  • No one will listen
  • There are so many already
  • Many other nonsense things

I’ll debunk these briefly.

My voice: My voice is Northeast/New York nasal and can come off shrill. It has very little baritone. And it got me a ton of teasing growing up in the era of Steve Urkel and Carlton Banks, to the point where I subconsciously tried to deepen it for a long time. But as I grow more confident in my figurative voice as a writer and scholar, it’s time to embrace my speaking voice. If it does nothing else, it will help me in my possible future presentations and teaching.

Time: I have time. Even with the puppy, and work, and school, I spend far too much time idly pondering “issues” and wanting to take them apart. I don’t need to be recording an episode every day or even every week. So long as I do it consistently, it will work fine.

Audience: You’ll listen! And you’ll share! And honestly, a few dozen people is a good enough audience for me. Maybe it will grow.

Repetition: Eh. If I ground it in my perspective, which belongs only to me, it will be authentic and hopefully resonant. And if I do it well, it just won’t matter if it covers similar ground to others.

So. Let’s talk about what it will be.

I wanted to discuss race and language, but I needed a hook. And one thing I’ve thought about writing about – that I realize would be richer in a more informal audio format – is to look at words (or phrases) that are not inherently racist (so, no slurs) but are often used, unintentionally, in ways that other and devalue the minoritized. I’m talking about “accent,” I’m talking about “low-skill,” I’m talking about “professional/unprofessional,” I’m talking about “cultural fit,” I’m talking about, in what will be the subject of my first episode, “expats” and “immigrants.” My plan is to invite those who have some expertise (either through their profession or their life experience or both) that would highlight something compelling about a particular word or phrase and how it is often used to perpetuate systemic racism, and hopefully find ways for educators, parents, and students to contend with the words we choose to use. It’s not an empirical study, but it’s a bit of critical discourse analysis, some critical and racial literacy, using the lenses of critical race theory, critical whiteness studies, and a bunch of other (critical) things. (Maybe I should say “critical” again!)

My goal is not to get you to stop using the words I analyze in this podcast. I want only for us to chew on and consider the impact of the way these words are used. I expect some will get in their feelings thinking that I’m calling everyone racist for using what they see as innocuous words, but 1. if you think you’re being called racist and I haven’t done so explicitly, ask yourself why you default to that assumption, and 2. that’s not the point. We live in a society suffused with systemic racism and it’s literally killing people. Our language is part of that violence, even the words we tend to classify as “neutral.” Ultimately, there is no neutral, and there is no “standard” without the majoritized having chosen it. So, I am calling the podcast “Unstandardized English” to try and take apart the supposedly harmless words we all use in an accessible and hopefully engaging fashion.

I have, uh, no episodes, so there’s nothing to listen to yet. I hope to secure a guest at some point soon and have an episode out in the next few weeks.

Here’s the link again. Add it to your bookmarks if you would be so kind and I’ll let you know when there’s actually something to listen to. And if you, my race and language audience, want to be a guest, I am sure we can find a word or phrase that’s ideal for you to analyze with me. Also, feel free to suggest words for my ongoing list, which has about 25 items on it thus far and will continue to grow.

Thanks for reading and, I hope, listening someday.



Hedging Our Bets on Racism

If you point your finger at someone and call them a racist, all discussion will cease, even if that person is as blatantly racist as the men and women running the country right now.

There’s a reason for this, though. One that is both upsetting and understandable.

Racism became associated with Nazism during WW2, and Americans, ever concerned with looking like the better society, made sure to try and distance themselves from that. So all of the racist things in our own society were less awful than a literal Holocaust and therefore we, the “good” people, were never to be seen as racist.

This grows and mutates and changes. Progress is made, but each sliver of progress is met by both an intense backlash and also a desire to prove we’re good enough (ie “not racist”) and can’t we just stop talking about it yet?

Ultimately, there is never going to be a moment when we press a button and the country fully reckons with its racist history. Germany has done a remarkable job of this, but they had to lose a world war to be forced into penitence (maybe we could stand to have that happen, but a lot of us would have to die for us to admit defeat).

On the other hand, we can’t give up and use mealy-mouthed terms like “racially-charged” when we’re talking about a racist act. We should never be afraid of calling an act racist, and it’s distressing we have to flay ourselves open to be heard on this. When it comes to individuals, though, although I believe a lot more people are racist than would admit it, it’s most effective, in my view, to frame discussions around racist systems and socialization. That’s not to say we can’t call the president racist, because of course. But interpersonally, if we are choosing to educate (and we don’t have to choose this!), especially as a teacher myself, I feel I have the most success painting the institutions as racist and giving individuals the choice to perpetuate or resist their influence. When you help them feel they have a choice, they have a better chance to make better decisions.

That doesn’t mean they’re not racist, because, on a deeper level, most folks fear the other and are uncomfortable with groups demonized by society. But I don’t think it’s worthwhile to try to change those feelings you can’t really see. We can, however, hope to change people’s choices. So that’s just my opinion on effective ways to do so.


I’ve been going back and forth on what my ultimate goal is. And I still haven’t figured it out.

One thing I’ve become sure of is that if I were to create a model, even a well-researched and resonant one, it would become commodified and diluted almost as soon as it became popular.

I think about what I’ve fallen into and out of love with. Grit Test, Growth Mindset. Even the Best Plus test I administered several hundred times I once actually thought was pretty good. And although there is obviously unexamined oppressive reasoning behind all of them, the creators surely wanted to help. If I assume everyone is a mustache-twirling villain I do myself and them a disservice.

When you create a measurement tool, it so often just ends up a test people teach towards. If you condense it into a checklist, it’s easily digestible, but most people don’t or won’t or can’t take the time to place it in the context of the arguments supporting it, so it becomes a decontextualized CliffsNotes version of its original intent, and it loses much of its power.

On the other hand, if you refuse to checklist, how much reach can you really have?

I completed a project for school recently where I used Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies to envision changes I would make in my professional context. That book and its related articles resists checklisting, and I believe it’s better for it. But then I wonder if it automatically becomes limited to educators who are already interested in deepening their praxis.

It seems to me that the most impactful path is to create some sort of list to keep educators focused on central tenets. If people are interested in a model, they are going to need to remember some important facets thereof, and lists are an effective way to convey this information. But as soon as a list is created, it blocks out the sun for the people who merely want to seem they’ve deepened their praxis. And any truly great model is going to be complex because our students are.

How do you creat something that is complex but not convoluted, accessible but not diluted? I have no idea. But finding that tightrope and walking it is my goal over these final three years of school.

Using New Tools for New Things

EdTech is definitely a thing. It’s very much a thing.

Any educator who tries to pretend they can have a full career without using some form of EdTech is just being foolish, although I know a few like that.

The tragedy, of course, is that the tech giants got involved and turned it into an “efficiency” machine, which really just means “profit.” But I don’t really fault them for it, because corporations will corporation.

Yet, unless you can find one and show it to me, there hasn’t been a single study proving that even with all the tools in the world, marginalized students still struggle relative to those in dominant groups. Of course, this just means they are problematized, their cultures, languages, and races become pathologized, and deeply concerned people fret about various “gaps,” be it language, achievement, or what have you.

The problem is schools are cruel to them and they’re not given the support needed that would foster healthy motivation. But it would require school leaders, and teachers, to admit culpability to change this, and this is the biggest battle.

(Before someone jumps in with, “Teachers work hard!” Of course they do. We still do things in a way that’s harmful for the marginalized and we need to do better.)

EdTech doesn’t really have any solutions for this, yet. It can provide lesson plans and help with assessment and grading. It can help students prepare for exams and do research more easily. For all its faults, EdTech has the ability to be of great use. But if our educational institutions are meant to push our society forward by training future generations – and I believe, ultimately, that that is the purpose of schooling – then it needs to turn its focus to improving the way educators support the marginalized. I suppose there isn’t really any money in that sort of thing just yet. But it won’t meet its potential as a subfield until it addresses this need.

Word Problems

I kind of want to have a podcast, but not one where I just ramble about my life. I want to train my attention on words that are neutral in a vacuum but harmful in their usage.

I want to differentiate between slurs, which are objectively poisonous, and words that are used, even unintentionally, as codes for othering. An example here would be the phrase “cultural fit,” which still shows up on job descriptions from time to time or in justifications for hiring or not hiring someone.

These words can indeed have only innocent meaning, but they’re used as cudgels, covers for more insidious acts. When someone says “cultural fit,” what’s unsaid is that the dominant culture in an organization (or school, or what have you) would be unsettled by the person’s inclusion. Could this mean the person was genuinely unsettling and unstable? Yes. But could it also mean that something “other” about a person would be uncomfortable for the dynamic, something not easily defined and something that would be ideally left unsaid, so it is slotted under “cultural fit” and forgotten, and the homogeneity and hegemony are perpetuated.

What should be used instead? “We decided to go with someone else” is honest and doesn’t stigmatize the othered person. Or, more directly, “we liked (them) more.” Because that’s the truth, isn’t it? If we want to use a white lie, mention qualifications, although credentials are a potential source of stigmatization as well.

There are a lot of other words or phrases like this, diction that needs to be problematized and analyzed. And I think I need to do it. We’ll see.

Strong Voice

There’s a difference between a voice and an opinion. Everyone has opinions, deeply held or otherwise. And some of those opinions are dehumanizing garbage. We don’t need to get into those right now.

I’ve been thinking lately why my academic doubts have continued to grow smaller and smaller. Yes, I’m particularly interested in the material, and yes, it’s tied to what I want to do professionally, but that was true in my MA as well, and the writing didn’t flow as much as it does now.

Surely I will struggle in certain classes as my degree continues. But I come back to one particular item of a rubric I saw last fall.

In my introductory class, we were tasked with trying to create a project proposal for a study we may or may not do. In my case, it’s related to what I’ll probably put together in the next two years, but not precisely the same. One of the ways in which we were graded was on “evidence of strong voice.” This is different from the other items, which were much more objective. But it was encouraging to me, and I tried to write with my authentic linguistic patterns for almost the first time in my academic career.

I’ve written good papers before, papers that received high grades, but I wasn’t really in the words of those papers. Anyone with certain experiences could have written them, and thus they really weren’t as good as they could have been. Now, I ended up losing points on this assignment because I messed up the APA, but that goes to an important point: you do need to learn the standardized forms and practices so that you can choose to deviate from them, and part of what we’re learning is what publications will expect of us as writers.

When I say that I find much of academic writing to be of not particularly high quality, I am not referring to the findings or methodology. To me, the most interesting part of an empirical study is the discussion, where the authors can really stretch their expository legs and get some heft under their work. Although I do plan to conduct studies over time, I find the best writing comes when the author’s voice is clear and present, even if I disagree with their analysis and their points.

You can tell – or at least, I think you can tell – that someone has contorted their voice into what they hope will be accepted by editors and reviewers, because it sounds and feels choppy. I hope this doesn’t happen to me, though I’m sure, to some extent, it will.

Nevertheless, I want all of my writing, whether for school, on here, or for a larger public someday, to be technically sound and scholarly, but also unmistakeably mine to whose who have read or listened to me. And if it doesn’t sound like I’d say it, then I shouldn’t write it.

I hope this doesn’t mean that people think writing doesn’t take considerable effort. Of course that is not the case. However, in my view, and I finally feel confident in saying this, that effort should be put towards expressing your authentic voice in the strongest possible fashion. Anything else is just holding you back.

Acronyms for the Future

Literally the very first thing I learned in my Master’s program was a long list of acronyms regarding the field and its various subfields. ESL, EFL, ESP, EAP, ESOL, and so on. And of course we discussed the name of our degree itself, TESOL (which is just ESOL with “teaching” in front of it).

Now, I tend to refer to the field as “ELT” because it’s the acronym I feel straddles the line between being recognizable among professionals and less stigmatizing.

On the one hand, look, if I make up an acronym, no one will pay attention to what I’m saying. And on the other hand, if I continue to use acronyms I’m not very fond of, I feel as though I’m being disingenous to some extent.

Although I have this degree, I’m becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the “O” in TESOL (or ESOL). The acronym is an improvement over the narrow term ESL, but my entire driving purpose is the fact that our field in its current state perpetuates the othering and marginalization of minoritized groups. With that said, if I am referring to past research about the field, maybe I should actually use “TESOL” because its glaring lack of self-awareness is something we should keep in mind. In other (ha) words, if I try to use a more progressive acronym to describe what exists now, it would be somewhat dishonest.

So the dilemma is, do I use a term that represents my aspirations in the field? Or do I use a term that reflects the present and past?

Where I come down on this is this perhaps wishy-washy conclusion: The acronym is going to keep changing anyway, so I might as well adopt the newer terms within the field and then continue to update my terminology with new developments. Truthfully, what would I use if I wanted to propose a new acronym? What would accuately convey my meaning?

Would it be something like “TSE,” for “Teaching Standardized English?” That would certainly be more accurate than many of our other acronyms, but it wouldn’t push the terminology forward, so how much better is it really than “TESOL?” However, if I continue to use “ELT,” in a way I am pretending that the decontextualized teaching of language is harmless or neutral, which is decidely not the case?

But I stil speak and write in what is commonly considered standardized English. I am not in a language education classroom right now, but if I were, although I’d avoid correcting students reflexively, I’d still be promoting the standardized by virtue of being the teacher and holding the relative power.

And I need to refer to the field and the practice as… something.

So for now? I think ELT works. The key, for the moment, is to push everyone’s understanding of what that “L” really means. Language is not just words, grammar, text. Language requires context, culture, and RACE. So if I do my work correctly, ELT will encompass the work I do, and it won’t ignore the marginalized or further other them.

I want to add that I don’t blame those who have taught me for using the older terms, or focusing on relatively decontextualized language. It was never entirely decontextualized, but the context was often, say, the different ways language speakers might pronounce phonemes, or holidays and heroes. Nevertheless, we can all increase our multiple forms of literacy beyond the initial understanding we were all given. And for now, ELT is, I think, the best we have for describing the past, the present, and what we could be in the future, so long as we come closer to having a full, honest grasp of what the hell language really means.

Justice: Or, So What Do We Do?

In the work I’m trying to do, part of the point is that language professionals who insist that race and language are separate issues (or that the former isn’t an issue at all) are wrong and that the racial hierarchy of the United States (and the world) has a profound impact on all marginalized and racialized people.

Yet as I work to find my own niche in documenting this – having chosen a form of performative defensiveness as a subject, an offshoot of White Fragility and the like I’m referring to as the “altruistic shield” – I’ve been confronted with the fact that just point out another avenue to pain for people of color isn’t really unique. My idea might be, if I succeed at arguing my point(s) well, but let’s say I do establish the altruistic shield as something credible. Then what?

In a way, it’s a shame, because a lot of what gets published is a series of studies documenting black (and brown) pain, and these studies need to be published because some folks, even within education, still don’t believe us, the way white folks in the 60s needed to see the brutality on TV before it was real, or had to see 45 assume office before they realized little progress had been made. So that subgenre of scholarship on racism that chronicles and documents bigotry is still, sadly, needed, because they won’t believe us if we don’t remind them. But what comes after? How do we actually address these issues?

I don’t actually know. And I know the way we are trying to solve it – “diversity and inclusion!” – isn’t really increasing racial literacy.

I could write what I want to and then tell people to read more scholarship, but with the paywalls and other such barriers, that’s not a very useful thing to advise, setting aside the fact that even open access journals are full of excessive jargon.

Yet I’m reluctant to offer a checklist. “Do these three things and you won’t be bad at race.” That’s not how it works. That’s not how any of it works.

As Paris and others have noted, the “inward gaze” is really the way to address all of this, in my view. People in dominant groups need to recognize more than mere privilege – which has been watered down into uselessness – but their role in hegemony and dominance. And then they – we, really, as I’m a male of high socio-economic status – have to consider what they can do about it.

Ultimately, though, we’re talking about justice. How can we truly increase justice for marginalized people? And since we’re talking education, justice for marginalized students? That’s the way to really and truly fight this issue. And there are a lot of forms of justice, despite the way the word has been narrowly defined as “vengeance,” basically. I’m not ready to answer the question as to the best way to provide justice for those who need it. But I think, no mattter what I do, it will have to speak to how justice can be extended to those from whom it has been denied. And if I can do that, in a concrete, actionable way, it will have some real weight and some real impact.

Stay tuned.