Six Lenses for Anti-Oppressive Education

Partial Stories, Improbable Conversations (Second Edition)

by Kevin K. Kumashiro (Volume editor) Bic Ngo (Volume editor)
Textbook XIV, 332 Pages
Series: Counterpoints

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • About the Editors
  • Contributors
  • Introduction, by Bic Ngo
  • References
  • Part I. Contesting Authoritative Discourses in Education
  • Chapter One: Paying with Their Lives: One Family and the School-to-Prison Pipeline, by Joe Lewis and Letitia Basford
  • Mass incarceration sets the stage for the school-to-prison pipeline
  • Disproportionate and exclusionary discipline in schools
  • Zero tolerance for children
  • The downward spiral
  • What can schools do?
  • References
  • Chapter Two: Why Social Justice Educators Must Engage Science in All of Our Classrooms, by Jane L. Lehr
  • Social justice pedagogies and scientific knowledge
  • Science and technology studies: resources and tools for social justice educators
  • Challenging gendered scientific truths in my classroom
  • The romance of the egg and the sperm
  • Conclusion
  • Postscript – june 2013
  • Note
  • References
  • A Teaching Story: Academic Writing and the Silence of Oppression, by Linda Fernsten
  • Background
  • Writer profile
  • Len’s words
  • Discourse analysis
  • What i learned
  • References
  • Conversation: Contesting Authoritative Discourses in Education, by Letitia Basford, Linda Fernsten, Jane L. Lehr, and Joe Lewis
  • References
  • Part II. Unearthing Hidden Curriculums: Developmentalism, Race, and Laughter
  • Chapter Three: Disposable Young Mothers: Desettling Developmentalism, Unmasking Waste and Value Production in Education, by Erin Dyke and Jana LoBello
  • Co-constitution of assigning disposability and value
  • The “epidemic” of teen pregnancy
  • The bod(ies), the individual, and the “welfare queen”
  • Playful work: some pedagogical toys and tools
  • References
  • Chapter Four: Raced Curriculum: Asian American College Students’ Lives, by Candace J. Chow
  • Whiteness on college campuses
  • Racial discourses for asian americans
  • Methodology
  • Traditional practices, cultural clashes
  • Moving forward
  • Notes
  • References
  • A Teaching Story: Unsilencing Laughter in Serious Spaces, by Sarah E. Hansen
  • Laughter’s hidden curriculum
  • “all indians tak like dis” (class cracks up)
  • Pedagogical silence and the perpetuation of oppressive discourses
  • Looking at laughter through an alternative lens
  • Notes
  • References
  • Conversation: Unearthing Hidden Curricula: Standards, Socialization, and Silences, by Candace J. Chow, Erin Dyke, Sarah E. Hansen, and Jana LoBello
  • References
  • Part III. Learning to Read Critically: From High School to College to Teacher Education
  • Chapter Five: Studying Media Representations to Foster Critical Literacy, by Jill Ewing Flynn
  • Studying media in methods
  • White teachers, urban students
  • Studying media representations in the ela classroom
  • Conclusion: the importance of media
  • Appendix a: media representations of teachers project
  • Appendix b: new media/popular literacies project
  • More details on the steps
  • References
  • Chapter Six: Ways of Reading, Ways of Seeing: Social Justice Inquiry in the Literature Classroom, by Mary Beth Hines
  • Background on richard
  • Ideology, literary pedagogy, and social justice: richard’s views
  • Interrogating “student-centered, constructivist“ ideologies
  • Enacting social justice through the curriculum
  • Ideological critique in the classroom: what counts as knowing literature, culture, and social justice?
  • What counts as knowledge: the function of close reading in richard’s class
  • References
  • A Teaching Story: Anti-Oppressive Pedagogy and Curriculum in Secondary English Methods: Focusing on Critical Literacy, by Jocelyn Anne Glazier
  • Why critical literacy?
  • Course design
  • Practical applications
  • Conclusion and limitations
  • References
  • Conversation: Learning to Read Critically, by Jill Ewing Flynn, Jocelyn Anne Glazier, and Mary Beth Hines
  • References
  • Part IV. Addressing Resistance: Uncertainties in Learning to Teach
  • Chapter Seven: Disrupting “Neutrality” and the New Racism in Teacher Education, by Ann Mogush Mason
  • Story one: success cannot be standardized
  • Story two: advocacy means taking a stance
  • Story three: neutrality discourse is deep and insidious
  • The beguiling appeal of neutrality
  • Tracing the roots of the neutral ideal
  • The course
  • The film
  • The teacher educator and the new racism
  • The new racism in practice
  • What this implies for teacher educators
  • Beyond the debate
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter Eight: Putting Anti-Oppressive Language Teacher Education in Practice, by Mary Curran
  • Language, education, and discrimination
  • Anti-oppressive language teacher education in practice
  • The course: language and culture
  • The book club
  • Interactions between my students and the adult esl learners
  • The first visit
  • Between teaching and learning
  • Note
  • References
  • A Teaching Story: Reflections upon Racism and Schooling from Kindergarten to College, by Ann Berlak and Sekani Moyenda
  • Ann: a classroom encounter
  • Sekani: the boot camp presentation
  • Seven minutes of chaos
  • From simulation to college classroom confrontation
  • Making sense of the encounter: conversations across time and space
  • Anger in the classroom
  • Anger (moral and defensive)
  • Some reflections upon reflection
  • Anger in the classroom since the encounter
  • The unconscious: ubiquitous and uninvited guest
  • 2013
  • In the long run
  • Sekani: love letters to the staff at rosa parks
  • Love letter to staff 2013
  • References
  • Conversation: Addressing Resistance: Uncertainties in Learning to Teach, by Ann Berlak, Mary Curran, Ann Mogush Mason, and Sekani Moyenda
  • Introduction
  • Challenging our students and ourselves
  • Discussing the indefensibility of “neutrality”
  • Concluding thoughts
  • Part V. Complicating Race and Racism in Theory and Practice
  • Chapter Nine: Going Against the Grain: Higher Education Practitioners Countering Neoliberalism and Post-Racial Ideology, by Sumun Lakshmi Pendakur
  • The contours of the field
  • Practitioner as intervention: a review of the literature
  • Institutional versus empowerment agents
  • Barriers and challenges
  • Study background
  • Race matters: empowerment agents in action
  • Asset orientation
  • Maintaining critical consciousness
  • Working with students of color in empowering ways
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Chapter Ten: “Khmerican” and Lao American Youths’ Contested Ethnic Identities: Perspectives That Move Teachers Beyond Race, by Phitsamay Sychitkokhong Uy
  • Are asians black or white?
  • Complexities of identity
  • Research background
  • Methodology
  • Researcher identity
  • Findings
  • Teacher roles in identity development
  • Choosing ethnic identities
  • Either “all smart” or “all in gangs”
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • References
  • A Teaching Story: It Begins with Muffins for Moms: How Racist Practices Casually Creep into Classrooms, by Mary E. Lee-Nichols
  • It begins with muffins for moms
  • A multicultural approach to teacher education
  • Pilgrims and indians: indicators of what lies within
  • Letting go…moving forward
  • References
  • Conversation: Complicating Race and Racism in Theory and Practice, by Mary E. Lee-Nichols, Sumun Lakshmi Pendakur, and Phitsamay Sychitkokhong Uy
  • In closing
  • References
  • Part VI. Situating Anti-Oppressive Education in Our Times
  • Chapter Eleven: Teaching in a Time of War and the Metaphor of Two Worlds, by George Lipsitz
  • References
  • Chapter Twelve: From Individualism to Interconnectedness: Exploring the Transformational Potential of a Community-Generated Methodology, by Brian D. Lozenski and Gevonee EuGene Ford
  • Individualism: the root of all violence
  • Community, interconnectedness, loss, and learning
  • Loss of interconnectedness and recentering identity in education
  • A methodology of transformation from individualism to interconnectedness
  • NdCAD uhuru youth scholars
  • Two stories of nuys making community connections
  • Unpacking the methodology: analysis
  • Countering self-doubt
  • Demythologizing prevalent narratives of black life
  • Distributing educational responsibility
  • Conclusion: envisioning interconnected ways of being and learning
  • Note
  • References
  • Conversation: Situating Anti-Oppressive Education in Our Times, by George Lipsitz, Brian D. Lozenski, and Gevonee EuGene Ford
  • George lipsitz
  • Brian lozenski and gevonee ford
  • References
  • Afterword to the Second Edition: Against Losing Pedagogy, by Kevin K. Kumashiro
  • Index

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About the Editors

Bic Ngo is Associate Professor of Culture and Teaching in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Minnesota. She examines “culture” and “difference” in the education of immigrant students and the implications for theorizing immigrant identity, culturally relevant pedagogy, and anti-oppressive education. Her research has focused primarily on the educational experiences and perspectives of Lao American high school students and Hmong American high school students, college students, LGBT youth, community leaders, and Wat Tham Krabok Hmong refugee parents. She is a recent recipient of the Scholars Award from the William T. Grant Foundation and the Early Career Award from the Committee on Scholars of Color in Education, American Education Research Association.

Kevin Kumashiro is Dean of the School of Education at the University of San Francisco. He was formerly professor of Asian American Studies and chair of the Department of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he also served as primary investigator and director of a $4 million U.S. Department of Education grant-funded initiative to support Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and English-language learners in higher education. He is the award-winning author or editor of nine books on education and social justice, including Bad Teacher! How Blaming Teachers Distorts the Bigger Picture. He is the founding director of the Center for Anti-Oppressive Education and the president of the National Association for Multicultural Education.

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Letitia Basford is Assistant Professor in the School of Education at Hamline University. Her teaching and research interests focus on students’ equitable access to education, with a focus on culturally responsive and reform-based pedagogy. Her work has been published in the Review of Research in Education, The Journal of School Choice, and The Journal of Southeast Asian American Education & Advancement.

Ann Berlak has taught in elementary schools and teaching credential programs for 50 years. She is retired from San Francisco State University. Her passion has been the continuing reconstruction of social justice pedagogy in response to ever-changing forms of injustice and possibility. She authored, with Harold Berlak, Dilemmas of Schooling: Teaching and Social Change and, with Sekani Moyenda, Taking It Personally: Racism in the Classroom from Kindergarten to College.

Candace J. Chow is interim Assistant Director of the Intergroup Dialogue Project at Cornell University. She received her Ph.D. in Education from Cornell. She has taught high school English in the South Bronx and in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Candace’s interdisciplinary work examines the intersections of race and education and the ways that Asian Americans respond to the discourses that are imposed on them. Her current project focuses on Asian American ← XI | XII → teachers’ understandings of identity and how their identities influence pedagogical decisions.

Mary Curran is Associate Dean of Local-Global Partnerships at the Graduate School of Education, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Her recent work focuses on preparing current and future teachers for global competence. Through funding from the Longview Foundation, she leads the Teaching the World Initiative for New Jersey teacher educators. She directs an annual study-abroad program, Classroom Organization in Yucatán, focusing on culturally responsive classroom management for pre- and in-service teachers who want to learn more about the Mexican educational system. She is committed to anti-oppressive teacher education, partnerships both in the local community and around the world, and preparing language education teachers (and all teachers) to be advocates.

Erin Dyke is a doctoral student in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Minnesota. Her research interests encompass activist, collectivist, and participatory research methodologies; decolonial, feminist, and anti-capitalist pedagogies; and the complex relationship between the education system as a modernist state technology and the forms of study and knowledge production engaged in local social movement-building efforts.

Linda Fernsten is Associate Professor in the Secondary Education Department of Dowling College in New York. Her main research interest is the teaching of writing, not only across the disciplines, but also as writing combines with social justice issues in education. She has published and presented nationally and internationally on a variety topics including writer identity and poststructural theory, the teaching of writing across the curriculum, alternative assessments, and multicultural issues and teaching.

Jill Ewing Flynn taught middle and high school English for 9 years. She is currently Assistant Professor at the University of Delaware, where she teaches undergraduate methods courses and coordinates student teaching for the English Education Program. Her research and teaching interests include critical literacy, multicultural literature, and culturally relevant pedagogy.

Gevonee EuGene Ford is the Founder and Executive Director of Network for the Development of Children of African Descent (NdCAD), a non-profit family education center located in St. Paul, Minnesota, that was established in 1997 and is focused on education and community revitalization in African-descent communities.

Jocelyn Anne Glazier is Associate Professor of Teacher Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In her research, Jocelyn examines ← XII | XIII → teachers’ enactment of transformational pedagogies in their classrooms, the impact on historically marginalized students in particular, and the influence of teacher education on their pedagogy.

Sarah E. Hansen is Assistant Professor of Education at St. Catherine University. Her research focuses on the experiences of South Asian immigrant youth and the unexpected ways in which humor disrupts and perpetuates inequities that youth encounter. Her work builds on her experiences as a public school teacher.

Mary Beth Hines is Chair of Literacy, Culture, and Language Education at Indiana University. Her areas of interest include literacy and social justice, practitioner inquiry, digital media practices, and identity performance of young adults.

Mary E. Lee-Nichols is Assistant Professor of Teacher Education at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, where her work addresses educational policies and practices that continue to reproduce class structure and social inequalities in classrooms today. Her research interests are focused on white teachers in predominantly white rural communities and their experiences with diversity.

Jane L. Lehr is Associate Professor in Ethnic Studies and Women’s & Gender Studies at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. She is also Faculty Director of the Cal Poly LSAMP Program (NSF HRD-1302873) and Co-Director of the Liberal Arts & Engineering Studies undergraduate major. Her PhD is in Science & Technology Studies and Women’s Studies from Virginia Tech.

Joseph Lewis is Assistant Professor in the School of Education at Hamline University specializing in English Language Arts education. His areas of scholarly interest and writing include cross-cultural language and literacy practices (specifically in Morocco and Tanzania); critical, postcolonial, and postmodern forms of ethnography; and, most recently, the school-to-prison pipeline.

George Lipsitz is Professor of Black Studies and Sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His publications include The Fierce Urgency of Now: Improvisation, Rights, and the Ethics of Co-Creation (co-authored with Daniel Fischlin and Ajay Heble), How Racism Takes Place, and The Possessive Investment in Whiteness. Lipsitz serves as President of the Board of Directors of the African American Policy Forum and as a member of the Board of Directors of the National Fair Housing Alliance.

Jana LoBello is a doctoral student in Culture and Teaching within the department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Minnesota. Her research background includes working with adolescent mothers within both formal schooling and community-based organizations. Areas of specialization ← XIII | XIV → include special and elementary education curriculum and instruction. Culturally relevant pedagogies inform both her teaching and learning.

Brian D. Lozenski is a doctoral candidate in the Culture and Teaching program at the University of Minnesota. His research focuses on youth participatory action research situated in African knowledge systems as an educational model that positions youth as agents of societal transformation.

Ann Mogush Mason is Visiting Assistant Professor of Teacher Education at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, where she teaches courses in the social and cultural foundations of education. Dr. Mason earned her PhD in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Minnesota. She speaks and writes to varied audiences on topics related to culturally relevant pedagogy, race, and teacher identity.

Sekani Moyenda has been a social justice educator at Rosa Parks Elementary School for 19 years, committed to providing an authentic education to African American students and students of all oppressed groups within the public education school system. She has co-authored (with Ann Berlak) Taking It Personally: Racism in the Classroom from Kindergarten to College and is a contributor to Building Racial and Cultural Competence in the Classroom, edited by Karen Manheim Teel and Jennifer E. Obidah.

Sumun Lakshmi Pendakur, EdD, is Associate Dean for Institutional Diversity at Harvey Mudd College and a fellow at the Asian American and Pacific Islander Research Coalition (ARC). Her work focuses on campus climate, equity, and social justice education. Her research interests include the racial consciousness of Asian American students and counter-hegemonic practices in education.

Phitsamay Sychitkokhong Uy is Assistant Professor in the Leadership in Schooling program at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and a fellow at the Asian American and Pacific Islander Research Coalition (ARC). Her research focuses on Southeast Asian and immigrant students’ educational experiences and family and community engagement. She utilizes her community organizing background to advocate for educational equity for all students.

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[T]he Race, Culture, Class and Gender Task Group at the U’s College of Education and Human Development recommended that aspiring teachers there must repudiate the notion of “the American Dream” in order to obtain the recommendation for licensure required by the Minnesota Board of Teaching. Instead, teacher candidates must embrace—and be prepared to teach our state’s kids—the task force’s own vision of America as an oppressive hellhole: racist, sexist and homophobic. (Kersten, 2009)

It has been several years since a conservative columnist wrote the above commentary about my work on our college’s Teacher Education Redesign Initiative. The group’s working notes from a brainstorming session were leaked to a conservative watchdog, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), by an individual who opposed redesigning the teacher education program toward anti-oppressive education. As the above excerpt suggests, our attempts to challenge racism, sexism, and homophobia amounted to an anti-patriotic “vision of America as an oppressive hellhole.” Kersten (2009) alleged that our focus on “white privilege,” “institutional racism,” and the “myth of meritocracy” amounted to “indoctrination” and “Orwellian” tactics. Our discussion of the importance of infusing culturally relevant pedagogy into the curriculum was branded as similar to “the modus operandi” of the “reeducation camps of China’s Cultural Revolution.”

While a few of my colleagues and I had worried about the need to move beyond basic anti-oppressive concepts such as white privilege, the myth of meritocracy, and institutional racism, the right-wing media and some local residents ← 1 | 2 → framed the ideas as an audacious assault on U.S. citizens and society. FIRE sent a letter to the president of our university. Fox News spotlighted the story on The O’Reilly Factor (Tabacoff, 2009). My colleagues and I received hate emails and phone calls. In one email I received, a White man asserted: “It is the parent[s’] fault, NOT the teachers or the system.” Parents should “expect their children to be doctors, not the next LeBron James.” He closed the lengthy email with the message: “Finally, tell the parents to start being parents!!!! not birthing machines.”

As I reflect on my work on the redesign initiative and the controversy that ensued, I am reminded that anti-oppressive education is precarious, heartbreaking work, that is perhaps more necessary than ever before. In our supposedly “post-racial” era and “reformed” education, working toward social justice is complicated by “new racism” (Bonilla-Silva, 2009; Cross, 2005) and entrenched resistance to the transformation of social, cultural, and economic inequities. Given this complexity, and the various forms and dimensions of oppression, anti-oppressive education continues to require multiple approaches, nuanced analyses, and pedagogical nimbleness. This new edition contributes to this effort.

As Kevin and I indicated in the first edition, every perspective is partial. Every perspective has strengths as well as weaknesses. Every perspective opens up opportunities for certain kinds of learning and change, and simultaneously forecloses other kinds of learning and change. This book underscores the partiality of various “lenses” to anti-oppressive education. Indeed, the juxtaposition of multiple lenses—from critical, queer, feminist, multicultural, postcolonial, to anti-racist, among others—may provide us with ways to innovate the field of education research and work toward social justice.

Similar to the first volume, this edition spotlights six themes or “lenses” for understanding and analyzing education and its relation to oppression and anti-oppressive transformation. It brings together multiple perspectives on anti-oppressive education from various contexts, including K–12 schools, teacher education programs, postsecondary institutions, and community-based organizations. The book provides an array of practical and theoretical resources for educators to explore and innovate practices to confront and dismantle racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, and other forms of oppression in education. More than providing simple stories of triumph, this collection illuminates the complexity of and need for work toward anti-oppressive education.

Each of the six parts consists of at least two chapters and a “Conversation.” The conversations uniquely bring together the authors of chapters in each section to collaboratively engage with and respond to each other’s chapters as way to model collective work toward change that builds from different perspectives, experiences, and knowledge. Some of the parts also include “Teaching Stories,” which are chapters that provide insights into the ways in which the theme manifests in teaching and learning practices. ← 2 | 3 →

Notably, this edition boasts ten new chapters as well as new or considerably revised Conversations for each of the six parts. The chapters provide readers with diverse perspectives for considering anti-oppressive education from a range of content areas (e.g., social studies, English language arts) in K–12, postsecondary, and community contexts; student and educator populations (e.g., elementary, secondary, university); social differences (e.g., race, gender, culture); activities (e.g., book club, lesson planning) and research methodology (e.g., case study, self study, participatory action research). Further, this new edition significantly amplifies the perspectives and experiences of youth. For example, new chapters highlight the perspectives and experiences of Southeast Asian, South Asian, and African American youth. Other chapters call attention to the destructive force of educational injustices on the lives of teenage mothers and youth in the school-to-prison pipeline.

Part I, “Contesting Authoritative Discourses in Education,” explores the ways in which dominant discourses in education influence the ways we think about what and how we are supposed to be teaching and learning, and who we are supposed to be as individuals. Joe Lewis and Letitia Basford provide a glimpse of the school-to-prison pipeline by sharing the stories of a single mother and her two sons to disrupt discourses of “discipline” and “at risk.” Jane L. Lehr then examines the ways in which sexual assault discourses “blame the victim” while simultaneously perpetuating discourses of masculinity and femininity that contribute to the production of a “rape culture” on university campuses. Linda Fernsten draws on the experiences of Len, a Haitian American college student, to tell a teaching story about the impact of the “stunted growth” discourse on his identity as a writer.

Part II, “Unearthing Hidden Curriculums: Developmentalism, Race, and Laughter,” examines unofficial curricula inside and outside of school that reinforce the status quo and maintain inequities and bias based on race, gender, class, and other dimensions of difference. In the first chapter, Erin Dyke and Jana LoBello explicate discourses of individual responsibility and teenage motherhood to illustrate the ways in which these discourses measure, categorize, and value/devalue youth women. Next, Candace J. Chow draws on critical race theory to examine the ways in which the hidden curriculum of whiteness obscures and preserves racial discourses that shape the identities of Asian American college students. Last, in her Teaching Story, Sarah E. Hansen troubles dominant understandings of laughter in the classroom. She explores the laughter of South Asian American students during discussions of race, ethnic identity, and gender to re-imagine the role of laughter in anti-oppressive education.

Part III, “Learning to Read Critically: From High School to College to Teacher Education,” suggests that anti-oppressive education within the English language arts requires changing not only what students read, but also how they read. This group of chapters focuses on the specific lens of critical literacy and the discipline of English language arts. Jill Ewing Flynn offers an account of her work ← 3 | 4 → with undergraduate preservice English teachers to examine the production and consumption of media and learn how to incorporate a critical approach to media in class assignments and lesson plans. Mary Beth Hines focuses on her work with a teachers collaborative to examine the ways in which teachers navigate social justice practice in literacy classrooms. Jocelyn Anne Glazier’s chapter follows, with an elaboration of her approach in supporting Master’s degree students’ learning about anti-oppressive and socially just teaching that includes the deconstruction of their curriculum and pedagogical practices.

Part IV, “Addressing Resistance: Uncertainties in Learning to Teach,” examines the tensions and resistances in teacher education courses that focus on inequities in education related to social class, gender, language, culture, and race. Ann Mogush Mason explicates the ways in which her students hold on to discourses of color blindness and neutrality in considerations of race and inequality. Next, Mary Curran reflects on her use of a book club with in- and preservice language teachers (i.e., English as a Second Language) as a pedagogical tool to foster both learning and unlearning about self and others in anti-oppressive pedagogy. Last, Ann Berlak and Sekani Moyenda’s teaching story illuminates responses to personal stories that bring attention to personal and institutional racism.

Part V, “Complicating Race and Racism in Theory and Practice,” explores experiences and practices that underscore the complexities of addressing race, racism, and racial ideology. Sumun Lakshmi Pendakur draws on her work with postsecondary institutional (empowerment) agents to showcase the impact of personal history and racial knowledge on practice, and the hegemony of racial ideology on higher-education institutions. In the chapter that follows, Phitsamay Sychitkokhong Uy disrupts the tendency to understand racial identities and experiences within a black/white binary by illuminating the racial and racialized experiences of Southeast Asian American students. Last, Mary E. Lee-Nichols shares her work with her preservice teachers to deconstruct taken-for-granted practices that maintain and perpetuate racial oppression and privilege.

Part VI, “Situating Anti-Oppressive Education in Our Times,” examines the broader social and political contexts for doing anti-oppressive education today. George Lipsitz reflects on what it means to teach in times of war, globalization, and conflicts between national priorities and international identities. Additionally, Brian D. Lozenski and Gevonee EuGene Ford offer an analysis of the ways in which the dominant educational paradigm severs school and youth from communities and impinges on the education of black youth, and provides insights on ways to move from individualism to interconnectedness.

As in the first edition, I ask readers to consider the convergences and divergences in the different parts, chapters, and conversations and to look beyond the writings as well. Looking “beyond” is critically important for imagining the ways in which practices and perspectives may need to be revised, re-imagined, or ← 4 | 5 → rearticulated to address the “particulars” of people, time, and place. To be sure, the individual chapters should not be viewed as “answers” or “models” to superimpose onto other contexts. I encourage readers to view this book as a point of departure for questioning existing conditions, practices, and beliefs that inform and construct the work of educators and the lives of students and families. I invite readers to converse with the authors, consider aspects of resonance and dissonance, and reflect on different routes toward anti-oppressive education.


Bonilla-Silva, E. (2009). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in America (3rd ed.) New York: Rowman & Littlefield.

Cross, B. (2005). New racism, reformed teacher education, and the same ole’ oppression. Educational Studies, 38(3), 263–274.

Kersten, K. (2009). At U, future teachers may be reeducated: They must denounce exclusionary biases and embrace the vision. (Or else.) Retrieved November 21, 2013, from http://www.startribune.com/opinion/70662162.html

Tabacoff, D. (Producer). (2009, December 15). Episode dated December 15, 2009 [Television series episode]. The O’Reilly Factor. New York: FOX News.

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Contesting Authoritative Discourses IN Education

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Paying WITH Their Lives

One Family and the School-to-Prison Pipeline


With gratitude to Bridget, Jordan, and Philip for their willingness to share their personal experiences with a wider audience

Bridget: I was pretty trusting of the school system when my sons first entered. I was a young, single mom and not very confident as a mother. I thought it would be good for my kids to be in school and be guided by people better educated and more mature than myself. I had been a college dropout and was on welfare when my kids entered school. I was still trying to figure out what to do with my life and thought that teachers and principals were a more enlightened class.
Jordan: I had some behavioral problems in school. I had one teacher who would send me to the principal’s office and just leave me there for hours. I would miss a majority of my education. I wasn’t perfect but [this teacher] gave me no breaks. The only time I didn’t get kicked out was when she read a book called Where the Red Fern Grows. It was something that I liked and enjoyed…. No one ever asked me what I liked or what kept me interested.
Philip: I probably have been suspended from school close to 40 times…. I remember being suspended for three days for sticking up my middle finger…. I’ve been suspended for smelling like marijuana but was never offered chemical dependency [treatment]…. I’ve been suspended for fighting and cursing but never offered anger management…. Going on and off suspension for kids is like going in and out of jail for adults. It becomes acceptable in one’s life and leads kids to believe that they are a part of trouble, so they should just stay that way.

This chapter seeks to provide a meaningful, though distressing, look at the school-to-prison pipeline by relating the experiences of Bridget, a white woman, and her two sons, Jordan and Philip, both biracial (their father is African American). As a ← 9 | 10 → single mom struggling to make ends meet, Bridget depended on the public schools in a large Midwestern city to help her sons find a path to success. Frankly, they failed her. Today Jordan is serving a 10-year jail sentence; Philip is on parole and a convicted felon with a permanent criminal record. Without releasing themselves from responsibility, Bridget, Jordan, and Philip provide a glimpse into how their experiences in school not only impeded Jordan and Philip’s success, but actually pushed them toward incarceration. In this chapter, we seek to examine how this is possible.

In addition to illustrating the school-to-prison pipeline’s real impact on real people, our purpose is to critique the institutional racism and classism that undergird it. In particular, we seek to interrupt the authoritative discourse of “zero tolerance” in our schools, a system of discipline that pushes many marginalized students—especially young black men—into the school-to-prison pipeline. At the root of zero tolerance is a deficit model discourse that too often positions students and families of color as “trouble,” “at risk,” or in some way “lacking.” Our contention is that kids of color are often taught in the school and by the school that they do not belong. As teacher educators, we see a need for much greater vigilance in preparing future teachers to avoid problematic practices in their own teaching and to confront institutional racism and classism in schools. While this chapter focuses primarily on the experiences of Bridget, Jordan, and Philip, we also begin to suggest changes that need to be made in schools. Most important, we argue for culturally relevant, student-centered teaching. We envision classroom and school-wide practices that strive to educate and nurture not only every child, but the whole child. We believe that teachers, administrators, and support staff should seek to build meaningful relationships with every student that enters our schools.

Both of the authors, Joe and Letitia, are white, middle-class teacher educators working at a small university located in the same metropolitan area where Jordan and Philip attended school. We are committed to fostering meaningful change through our teaching, though we still struggle with how to accomplish this most effectively. Both of us work with pre-service and practicing teachers in urban, often overcrowded, and under-resourced classrooms. Both of us have young children in these urban public schools. Despite the challenges we have encountered as teachers, teacher educators, and parents, we remain hopeful and fully invested in helping our urban public schools to serve all children. With this chapter, we seek to interrupt the troubling discourse of zero tolerance as an essential first step in moving our schools away from a deficit model perspective and toward becoming truly inclusive and supportive communities of learning.

Letitia first met Bridget as a student in her Education and Cultural Diversity course (Bridget has since completed her teaching license and is now teaching overseas). In class, Letitia was struck by Bridget’s obvious passion for social justice. She often spoke with exasperation of her sons’ experiences in school. Letitia asked Bridget to write about her sons’ experiences in greater detail; this led to written ← 10 | 11 → correspondence with Jordan and Philip. We introduce each section of this piece with extensive quotations from this family, because they have powerful experiences and perceptions to share, and we so rarely hear directly from the victims of the school-to-prison pipeline. We wish to express our deep gratitude to Bridget, Jordan, and Philip for their willingness to share their experiences with a wider audience. Our hope is that their stories will help to expose a disturbing trend in our public schools that is in dire need of critique and change.


Before examining the damaging effects of the school-to-prison pipeline, we step back to consider incarceration trends in the United States, because we see a direct link between these societal trends and discipline patterns in our schools. Today we arrest and imprison staggering numbers of our fellow citizens. In Michelle Alexander’s provocative book The New Jim Crow (2012), she argues that legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control. She reveals that “in the last thirty years the U.S. penal population has exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million” (p. 6), with six to ten times more people incarcerated in the U.S. than any other industrialized nation (p. 8). Ironically, during that same time, violent crime rates have dropped steadily. This means that we are incarcerating hundreds of thousands of our citizens for non-violent possession of drugs.

Alexander (2012) highlights how these arrests and convictions have targeted low-income communities of color almost entirely. The U.S. prison system imprisons startlingly disproportionate numbers of African Americans and Latinos, exacerbating economic inequities for communities of color. Felony convictions often result in the denial of basic rights, leading to the creation of what Alexander calls a permanent “under-caste” (p. 7) made up almost entirely of poor people of color. Meanwhile, despite an oversimplified and often-stereotyped portrayal of “drug culture,” it is simply not true that people of color are more likely to use and sell drugs (Alexander, 2010; Snyder & Stickman, 2006), though we arrest and convict them at much higher rates.

Just what is going on here? Alexander (2012) argues that the label of “criminal” has now replaced the n-word as an acceptable way to identify those individuals who “must” be eradicated from mainstream society. We have significantly broadened our understanding of what it means to be a criminal, and we have targeted those communities and individuals who are least equipped, economically, to defend themselves. “In the era of color blindness,” writes Alexander,

it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination…. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminals” and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. ← 11 | 12 → Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals…. We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. (p. 2)

In the past several decades, our society has made important strides in rejecting blatant racism (e.g., lynching, cross burning, Jim Crow laws, use of the n-word). At the same time, we have allowed and endorsed more subtle forms of institutional racism, particularly when it comes to crime and punishment. We police our communities of color more often and with greater vigilance, resulting in skewed incarceration rates and denial of basic rights to those who have been convicted.

Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, similarly suggests that mass incarceration has completely undermined our legal justice system, and he cites the war on drugs as the primary cause. Stevenson underscores the important link between incarceration and poverty, arguing that wealth often determines guilt or innocence in our legal justice system: “We have a system that treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent” (Moyers, 2013). Stevenson’s legal work has focused especially on children in the criminal justice system. He points out that there are a quarter of a million kids in the adult system today, some as young as 8 or 9. Almost 3,000 children have been sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Again, the racial disparities are frightening—74% of those who have been sentenced to life without parole are kids of color (Moyers, 2013). Even at a very young age, the markers of poverty and dark skin appear to ensure harsher treatment by our police and criminal justice system.

A similar pattern is seen in our public schools. In the same way that poor men of color are targeted for arrest and incarceration on a societal level, boys and young men of color are in much greater danger of experiencing disproportionate discipline and exclusionary or repressive punishment in our schools. As Jordan and Philip’s stories will illustrate, these boys and young men tend to be targeted and labeled as “problems” in school; they are frequently pushed out of mainstream classrooms; they experience suspension and expulsion at disturbingly higher rates; and they often wind up in the school-to-prison pipeline (Christle, Jolivette, & Nelson, 2005; Rashid, 2009; Solomon, 2004). Says Stevenson:

Even in school systems now, we are arresting children—six and seven and eight-year-old kids…. We put them in handcuffs; we treat them like criminals. It’s not something that any responsible parent could ever imagine being legitimate as applied to their children…. What happens, of course, is that when you don’t see the child as your child—which happens to a lot of racial minorities, undocumented children, and native children…we take a different attitude. (Moyers, 2013)

That “different attitude” has affected thousands of boys and young men in our school system. By labeling these kids early on as “troublemakers” (which is to say “budding criminals”), we give ourselves permission to treat them as “the other,” and we often fail to note or address the blatant racial disparity that accompanies such labels. ← 12 | 13 →


Bridget: Both of my boys had been in school for a few years and I was already getting the sense that boys in general, and especially black boys, were being treated more harshly than other kids. I saw it in the way teachers talked to the boys. I saw it in the way the boys came home angry…. Jordan told me many times that [his teachers] showed favoritism toward the girls. There was complaining about what appeared to be white privilege. It seemed the white students got along better with teachers in almost every class…. Teachers and school administrators think they have to keep a closer eye on boys, especially black boys, and crack down on them sooner to prevent them from becoming bigger menaces—a sort of nip-it-in-the-bud tactic…. Unfortunately, this tendency to regulate black boys more frequently and harshly only contributes to the problems these boys already face.
Jordan: To witness mostly black kids in [special education] classes made me think something was wrong because some of them were very smart. My friend David, he was one of the smartest kids I knew. However, he was in [special education] all day because he was hyperactive. I always thought maybe they should give him more stuff to do instead of having him in a class below his level. Classes for [special education] students would always be filled with a majority of blacks…. Higher-income students or students who were good at sports always seemed to get a pass on things.
Philip: Once I was characterized by my teachers as a troubled kid, I felt I had to continue to be that way, upholding an image I thought was cool…. I began to go to school to start trouble and I was a part of the troubled kids group…. Every public school I went to there was a certain group of kids that was singled out to be “trouble,” and other students were advised to stay away…. Every student that I knew that was “trouble” that I grew up with is either dead, in prison, or has been to prison.

Bridget, Jordan, and Philip were clearly aware of the authoritative discourses at work in schools, such as white privilege, tracking, and the categorizing of certain kids as “trouble.” One important way in which these authoritative discourses function is through the use of disproportionate and exclusionary discipline practices. In his analysis of disciplinary practices in our public schools, Noguera (2008) finds that the most severe measures of discipline (suspension and expulsion in particular) are often reserved for those kids who fit particular categories of “trouble.” They are overwhelmingly low-income kids, often diagnosed with learning disabilities. They tend to come from single-parent homes and foster homes; some are homeless. They are also disproportionately kids of color. In other words, we tend to punish and push away those students who are most in need of social services and steady, reliable adult guidance. Fenning and Rose (2007) have examined exclusionary discipline practices such as suspension and expulsion over the past ← 13 | 14 → 3 decades and document a clear overrepresentation of youth of color, particularly African American males. They also note a clear association between these harsh disciplinary tactics and eventual incarceration (p. 536).

The most obvious problem that results from the habitual use of suspension and expulsion is that it disconnects students from the classroom and disrupts their learning. This disconnect can be especially detrimental if it occurs frequently or over a long period of time. Students who miss a lot of class time fall behind and have difficulty catching up. If students are frequently suspended and not in school, this allows for greater periods of unsupervised free time and may increase the likelihood of criminal behavior. Equally damaging is the stigma created by multiple experiences of suspension and/or expulsion. Feelings of shame, humiliation, and anger may set off an irreversible downward trajectory like the one Philip describes above. Students may begin to distrust their teachers and school. They may feel rejected and unwanted, resulting in a much higher risk of dropping out and/or landing in prison (Christle et al., 2005; Fenning & Rose, 2007; Rashid, 2009; Solomon, 2004).

In many schools, we over-rely on embarrassment and exclusion as quick-fix disciplinary tactics rather than seeking to build long-term relationships with our students and guide them toward more responsible choices. Noguera (2008) points out that the disciplinary action of exclusion is often wholly unrelated to the actual act of misbehavior. Repetitive experiences with exclusionary discipline can result in students building up resistance to its deterrent effects, which are already limited. Noguera argues that schools “must accept responsibility for racial disparities in discipline patterns” (p. 138) and seek alternatives such as positive behavior support systems. Instead of using discipline as a way to get rid of troubled kids, we need systems that purposefully steer them toward responsible decision making and productive learning. This important change must begin with a thoughtful critique of zero tolerance policies in our schools.


Bridget: One day in Mrs. Howard’s [third-grade] classroom, they were celebrating birthdays in typical birthday fashion. There were decorations and cakes and singing songs. Some of the kids joked about giving the birthday kids spankings. Apparently, this kind of talk concerned Mrs. Howard, so she gave an earnest lecture to the students about how there would be no hitting or spanking each other in the classroom…. She reminded them that the school had zero tolerance for hitting and if you hit someone you could be suspended or expelled. Now, to Jordan, I guess her words seemed hypocritical, because the girls in the classroom repeatedly hit, pinched, and poked him without consequences. So in response to her lecture, he proceeded to get out of his seat, walk ← 14 | 15 → up to Mrs. Howard and slug her in the arm…. Of course, since she had just given the entire class a lecture on zero tolerance for hitting, she had to follow through…. She sent Jordan to the principal’s office…. [The principal] kept Jordan in her office for the rest of the day and then sent him home on the bus with a paper saying he had been suspended.

This was Jordan’s first experience with the school’s zero tolerance policy. Zero tolerance policies were developed in the 1990s by the federal government as a means of preventing drug use and gun violence in our schools. The initial purpose was to reduce and/or prevent significant and intolerable infractions like selling illicit drugs or carrying dangerous weapons. Today, zero tolerance policies are so over-used that students often receive severe punishments for misunderstandings, mistakes, or minor infractions. Many studies (Evans & Lester, 2012; Heitzeg, 2009; Solomon, 2004; Youth United for Change, 2011) have documented the misuse and abuse of zero tolerance policies and exposed them as a root cause of the school-to-prison pipeline. These studies all demonstrate a clear pattern of schools handing out the most severe disciplinary measures to boys and young men of color. Jordan clearly made a bad choice in the incident described above, but did it warrant invoking the school’s zero tolerance policy?

Bridget: After the suspension period was up, I went to the principal’s office with Jordan and his father…. It wasn’t often that his Dad showed up for things, but for this I implored him. I thought it would be good for [the principal] to meet Jordan’s father and see that Jordan had a father. [The principal] told us almost as soon as we walked in the door that Jordan was being transferred to another school. I asked why and she said that her school had a zero tolerance policy for violence. I told her that she could not put in a transfer request without talking to the parents first. [District] administrators in the main office had told me this…. She completely ignored us and said the transfer was complete.

Unfortunately, this kind of response to challenging behavior situations is not at all rare. In another setting, a 10-year-old boy diagnosed with Emotional and Behavioral Disturbance (EBD) became angry with his classmates for constantly teasing and harassing him, even choking him in one instance. The boy yelled, “I could kill you!” to his peers. He was detained by the school and arrested by police for making terroristic threats (Brownstein, 2009). A group called Youth United for Change (2011) has examined the impact of zero tolerance policies in the Philadelphia schools. Their research suggests that such policies have been used regularly to punish students for insignificant, even petty, violations. One 15-year-old was suspended and transferred for having a butter knife in his school bag (he’d forgotten about it until it was scanned by security officers). This student “was handcuffed to a chair” until the police arrived to arrest him (p. 8). Another young man was arrested, suspended, and transferred for carrying a small pair of scissors that he’d been using the night before ← 15 | 16 → to wrap Christmas presents. A third “budding criminal” was found with a Boy Scout pocketknife in a pair of pants he’d grabbed from the laundry basket that morning. He was also arrested, suspended, and moved to another school (p. 8).

These examples are extreme, but they highlight two essential points. First, our schools are beginning to look and feel more and more like prisons, a dangerous trend that must be reversed if we are to have any hope of “leaving no child behind.” Second, zero tolerance policies leave little space for informed and compassionate adults (perhaps a group of teachers, parents, counselors, and administrators working together) to assess specific incidents in context and arrive at a fair, reasoned response that is in the best interests of the children involved. In each of the cases described above, contextual factors and extenuating circumstances call for a more nuanced and compassionate response to the particular student. As Stevenson reminds us, “We too frequently define [punishment] through the lens of a crime…. But we give justice to people. We’re not actually condemning crimes, we’re condemning people” (Moyers, 2013).

Bridget: The zero tolerance policy was very confusing to me from the beginning. It wasn’t until I started seeing its effects that I really started questioning such a strict policy…. There should be lengthy discussion and serious thought put into how a child is punished…. Each situation should be examined with an open, rational mind…. In this case, I felt no respect from [the principal] whatsoever. I also wondered if it might have been a mistake to bring Jordan’s father along, because [the principal] seemed to have even more contempt for him. After the meeting, [Jordan’s father] stated the same thing to me. He felt her contempt and disrespect.
I’m not condoning what Jordan did, but it’s pretty clear that he got railroaded. He was never given the opportunity to state his perspective of what had happened. He was never asked how he felt about his class or his teacher. There was no discussion of natural consequences related to the actual incident. There was no discussion with Jordan about how to change his behavior. He was given no opportunity to learn about making amends, reconciliation, or forgiveness. He was being viewed as a “violent black male” at the age of 8…. I think at almost every turn, my son has received overly harsh punishment.


The male student of color stuck in a zero tolerance paradigm may begin to give up hope. Overzealous disciplinary response can lead to further incidents of “acting out” and increase the likelihood of academic failure (Heitzeg, 2009; Rashid, 2009). Unless a caring adult can make a meaningful connection, despair may set in. Eventually, dropping out becomes the only viable option, greatly increasing the likelihood of criminal behavior and, ultimately, prison time. Both Jordan and Philip experienced this exact trajectory—the school-to-prison pipeline. ← 16 | 17 →

Zero tolerance policies have increased the use of policing tactics on school campuses, as well as the physical presence of police and armed security guards. As Giroux (2012) puts it, “punishment and fear have replaced compassion and social responsibility as the most important modalities mediating the relationship of youth to the larger social order” (p. xv). A visible police presence on a school campus can amplify emotional tension for boys and young men of color, even those who do not have criminal records. Constant surveillance may make them feel that they are always under suspicion of criminal behavior, an atmosphere that makes productive learning more difficult and may encourage oppositional attitudes. The daily attitudes and practices of a campus police and security force can strongly influence this atmosphere.

Jordan: The police presence was very strong at my high school. They even had their own office, and officers would take you in there and put on black gloves and threaten you…. They would arrange drug busts…. I was taken to their office one time for an altercation and the police threatened me. They shouted stuff like “Do you know who Mr. ___ is? Do you know who we are?”

Writing about the resemblance of schools to jails, Fuentes (2011) observes that

children and adolescents spend the majority of their waking hours in schools that have increasingly come to resemble places of detention more than places of learning…. [T]he public schools of the twenty-first century reflect a society that has become fixated on crime, security, and violence. (p. 9)

In such an environment, is it any wonder that marginalized students feel alienated and rejected? Fuentes (2011) further notes that our societal paranoia about school safety has steadily increased during a period when the actual number of violent incidents has declined. She describes the peculiarly American paradox of seeing children as both victims and potential criminals. Perhaps the difference is rooted in how we see each child. Those who are identified as “trouble” lose their status as “our children” and become, instead, budding criminals who must be pushed away and ultimately put away. Again, we seek to challenge an authoritative discourse that positions children from this deficit lens. Stevenson challenges this problematic paradigm in our schools and criminal justice system: “You can’t say that’s not really a child because he’s black or brown…because he’s had some problems, because he’s disabled, because he’s angry…. You can’t say that makes him not a child” (Moyers, 2013). In fact, such children and their families often rely on the public schools to help them find a pathway to success. Bridget suggests that she needed the schools to guide and mentor her sons, but found, instead, that they were being pushed away “at almost every turn.”

Students who feel marginalized by the dominant culture of the school and threatened by constant surveillance and monitoring often choose to adopt a counter-culture. Here, a sense of identity and belonging develops through collective resistance to a perceived oppressive power structure (Basford, 2010; Lee, 2001; ← 17 | 18 → Ogbu, 1987; Tatum, 2003). Counter-cultures are viewed as rebellious, subversive, and threatening to teachers, administrators, and the police, who then react in extreme ways to punish the “perpetrators” (Heitzeg, 2009; Raible & Irizarry, 2010; Solomon, 2004). A downward spiral occurs that forces many boys and young men of color out of school and into the prison pipeline.

How can we, as teachers, possibly reach these kids if they enter our classrooms with defiant and oppositional attitudes? An important first step is to realize that students often enter our classrooms with a significant history of negative experiences in schools that understandably influence their view of teachers. In the same way that white, middle-class people have been taught to fear young black men and boys, these students may have learned to be suspicious of and cynical about schools and teachers. In Jordan’s case, a series of incidents beginning as early as first grade nudged him toward a general distrust of teachers and administrators.

Jordan: When I was in first grade, my teacher would always want kids to stay in at recess. He would choose one or two kids to stay behind and read with him. One day he told me and my friend Tim to stay behind and read with him. When everyone was gone, Tim was sitting on his lap and he was advising me to sit on his lap also. He was rubbing Tim’s inner thigh. When I told him no, he told me to listen to him and I told him I would read from my seat. He became very angry. He tried to grab me so I hit him and ran to the principal’s office to tell the principal what he was doing. [The teacher] came in behind me and told the principal what I did and that I was lying. I was the one who got in trouble and suspended. I was 6 years old. A few years later at the grocery store with my mom, I saw [this teacher] in the paper for molestation at another school.
Bridget: When Jordan was in eighth grade, he and another boy beat up a white boy who called them niggers…. There was a write-up on Jordan and there was a big meeting with me and the principal and the social worker…. They were determined to prove that Jordan’s story was a lie and that the beating was unprovoked…. Jordan was guilty hands down and there was no opportunity for him to learn about his mistake or make amends…. I was told that my sons were “high-risk” students. I honestly did not know what that meant. High risk for what? I was confused, angry, and losing trust fast.

A history of negative experiences in schools and classrooms may parallel troubling interactions with the police. Here, the student learns that he is the target of suspicion wherever he goes, and he is not likely to find safety or support from adults in any setting. Below, Jordan and Bridget describe a series of troubling interactions with authority figures both in and out of school.

Jordan: One day, I was late going to middle school. I was walking slow because I was very sick. I had been throwing up all morning and I could not reach my mother at work…. I was compelled to go to school because I did not want to get my ← 18 | 19 → mother in any more trouble. When I was three blocks from school, a police officer stopped me and asked me why I wasn’t in school. I explained to him that I was very sick and that’s why I was late. He told me to get in the back of the car. Then he gave me a black trash bag. I thought at first that he was going to drive me to school…but he took me downtown to the Juvenile Truancy Center. On the way downtown I started to vomit profusely. It poured out of my mouth into the trash bag and onto the back seat. The officer was more concerned about his seats.
Bridget: In high school, Jordan got into a shouting match with a vice principal. This guy was really old school. He had a reputation for knocking kids around in his office…. He brought Jordan into his office one day because Jordan was being too loud in the hallway. Jordan got mouthy so the cop was called in. Before the cop got there, the VP hit Jordan and Jordan hit him back…. The cop didn’t see that the VP had hit Jordan, only that Jordan had hit the VP…. This situation was a nightmare for me…. It seemed like the school was more interested in protecting the VP than anything else…. I reported the whole thing to the [district] administration and demanded an investigation. The [investigator’s] conclusions were more supportive of Jordan than the VP. She found reason to believe that Jordan had been abused by the VP. She recommended that three of the staff people be suspended. Before her report came through, which took months, Jordan had been sent to [another school].
Bridget: One day I got a call from the police that Jordan, Philip, and some of his friends were locked up because they were caught wandering the streets. They were all charged with truancy. Did you know it’s a crime now? The cop who arrested them was very rude to me while I was getting the boys. He told me that Jordan was someday going to end up in jail because of his mouth…. I thought saying that in front of my child was terribly rude and insensitive.

Reflecting on Jordan’s overall experience in school, we see a child who has witnessed and experienced abuse in school from a very early age. We see a discipline system that pushes him away, rather than seeking to rehabilitate or re-establish meaningful connection. We see failed opportunities to hold him accountable for his actions by expecting him to make amends for his mistakes in the settings where they occurred. We see parents who feel judged and powerless in the face of non-negotiable school policy. We see interactions with the police that make the family suspicious of and cynical about authority. We see school administrators acting unprofessionally at best, illegally and immorally at worst. Perhaps what is most important from our perspective, given our role as teacher educators, is that we see a dearth of teachers who are willing or able to establish a connection with this young man—to see him as a person, not a budding criminal, and to seek out those topics, texts, and activities that might re-ignite his interest in school. In short, we see a school use the authoritative discourse of zero tolerance as an excuse to give up entirely on a student and a family.

In Jordan’s case, the effect was permanent. At age 19, he was arrested for possessing crack cocaine and carrying a loaded gun. He received a mandatory 10-year ← 19 | 20 → prison sentence, 5 years for each charge. Today he remains in jail. Our point here is not to suggest that Jordan was guiltless. Far from it—he was a challenging student to reach, and he made a series of bad choices. Our point is simply to ask (for Jordan and for every other student who may wind up in the school-to-prison pipeline): How might this have been different?

Philip did not follow the same steady downward trajectory that Jordan did. For a time, Bridget thought that Philip had recovered from some initial challenges and was doing well. He had several years of academic and athletic success, with basketball being an especially motivating factor for him in school. “The basketball coach loved him,” shared Bridget. Then, near the end of ninth grade, Philip was arrested for possession of a small quantity of drugs. This led to suspension and his being kicked off the basketball team. Embarrassed and angry, Philip began to act out. “I kept thinking things would turn around,” Bridget says, but Philip eventually found a new identity as a member of the “troubled kids group.” A seemingly endless spate of suspensions, expulsions, and truancy charges followed. He eventually landed in a juvenile detention center and later served time in state prison. Today he has two felony charges on his record, significantly limiting his options for employment. In Philip’s case, we see the damaging effects of one specific incident that the school responded to with “zero tolerance.” Again, our point is not to condone Philip’s choices, but to ask: What if the school had handled this differently?


Jordan: My 6th grade year, my teacher was one of the best teachers I ever had. I cannot remember ever going to the principal’s office or getting suspended [that year]. He took the time to help every individual student in the class with what they needed…. He would ask me to come talk to him when he would see a problem arising…. He tended to the needs of each student, so that we all could learn and stay interested…. His class was a very eclectic class, and all of the students benefited.

In this final section, we offer some suggestions for what schools can do to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. Again, we seek to challenge the authoritative discourses of zero tolerance and a deficit model that too often positions kids and families of color as “trouble.”

First and foremost, we need to recruit and retain highly effective teachers, like the one that Jordan describes above. In her extensive research on U.S. public schools, Darling-Hammond (2010) finds that effective teachers are the primary factor influencing student success; they are also “the most inequitably distributed school resource” in our nation (p. 40). “By every measure of qualification,” writes Darling-Hammond, “less-qualified teachers are found in schools serving greater numbers of low-income and minority students” (p. 43). ← 20 | 21 →

What do we mean by a highly effective teacher? In “Lessons from Teachers,” Delpit (2008) describes what she has learned from observing highly successful teachers working in some of the most challenging urban settings. Three essential themes run through her analysis. First is the importance of having high expectations for all students. Delpit argues that poor urban children need to be taught more, not less. Teachers must seek out and nurture the skills and talents of each child. Second (and directly related) is the importance of teachers truly knowing their students. This requires that teachers honor, respect, and learn about students’ home cultures and languages, and it requires that we see students as individuals, to identify and draw out those traits and interests that may help them to succeed in school. As Jordan describes above, such teachers “tend to the needs of each student, so that [they] all [can] learn and stay interested.” Finally, perhaps most importantly, Delpit (2008) emphasizes the need for teachers to create a true sense of supportive community with their students. Ideally, supportive communities exist in each classroom and span across classrooms (through cross-curricular collaboration). They can also develop through varied extra-curricular opportunities in the school (as was critical for Philip as a member of the basketball team). And, of course, there needs to be a school-wide sense of community, beginning with the administration and involving every individual in the building. Had such communities of learning been in place, we wonder if things might have been different for Jordan and Philip.

There are many dedicated, talented teachers working in our urban public schools, but Darling-Hammond’s (2010) research highlights a disturbing trend: When talented teachers encounter daunting class sizes, inadequate resources, less-than-effective school leadership, and prison-like working conditions, they are understandably more likely to leave such settings for better-resourced, more supportive, more uplifting environments. Teacher turnover tends to be highest in low-income communities of color; those who remain are put under greater pressure and are at a higher risk for “burn out” (p. 110).

This challenge can only be addressed by creating a structures and systems that allow teachers to succeed—reasonable class sizes, effective school leadership, access to high-quality educational resources, and a discipline system that fosters an authentic, school-wide community of learning. Schools must be physically safe spaces, but a functioning community of learning also requires emotional safety and trust. We believe that meaningful education can only occur when students are free to take risks, make mistakes, try out new ideas, and experiment with different forms of expression. A school environment that resembles and feels like a prison or detention center is simply not conducive to learning and can have a particularly detrimental effect on students who already feel marginalized. Ideally, school facilities should inspire students to want to learn, not make them feel imprisoned. We oppose school structures and policies, such as “zero-tolerance,” that purposely set out to align our school system with our criminal justice system. ← 21 | 22 →

We envision a school discipline system that responds to students as individuals, while also emphasizing their membership in, and responsibility toward, a broader community of learning. Students do need structure, but they also need to feel that they belong. This requires a welcoming space that is not only tolerant of difference, but actively supports and nourishes it. The process begins with genuine opportunities for students to develop meaningful relationships. In a true community of learning, every adult in the building—teachers, administrators, counselors, advisers, coaches, maintenance and cook staff, and security personnel—should seek to foster meaningful relationships with kids. Every student should feel accepted and connected, not pushed away, mistreated, or “left behind.” We see an essential role for school security personnel, who represent the daily face of “authority” for most students, especially those who may feel marginalized. Security personnel and individuals responsible for school-wide discipline policies should be trained and professionally supported in culturally responsive communication practices. These adults need to know how to build positive and effective relationships with kids, particularly “at-risk” kids like Jordan and Philip.

We close this chapter with the wise words of Bridget, who reflects on how things might have been different for her sons and how we might reach more kids today. Bridget envisions a school community where we actively engage students in becoming agents of social change, including an opportunity to learn from mistakes. She reminds us that many families truly depend on the public schools to help kids find their way in the world.

Bridget: Most schools don’t talk enough about the injustices in society which manifest violence…. My sons came from a “broken home” and were growing up in a “crack neighborhood.” There were forces to contend with other than school. It would have been nice if I could have relied on schools as a means of improving our lives. But they actually impeded my sons’ success. I’m not sure exactly what the schools could have done to help Jordan. I just know that what they tried to do didn’t help and often made things worse, for him and for me.
The irony is that the guys who could come in and talk to kids about their experiences and what it has taught them are not allowed to be around kids because they are felons. My son Philip would make a great teacher…but he’s a felon and right now he doesn’t feel like he has much of a future ahead of him because of his felony status. This will follow him wherever he goes. There is no such thing anymore as “paying your dues.” People pay with their entire lives now.


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Christle, C., Jolivette, K., & Nelson, C. (2005). Breaking the school to prison pipeline: Identifying school risk and protective factors for youth delinquency. Exceptionality, 13(2), 69–88.

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Evans, K., & Lister, J. (2012). Zero tolerance: Moving the conversation forward. Intervention in School and Clinic, 48(108), 108–114.

Fenning, P., & Rose, J. (2007). Overrepresentation of African American students in exclusionary discipline: The role of school policy. Urban Education, 42(6), 536–559.

Fuentes, A. (2011). Lockdown High: When the schoolhouse becomes a jailhouse. London: Verso.

Giroux, H. (2012). Disposable youth: Racialized memories, and the culture of cruelty. New York: Routledge.

Heitzeg, N. (2009). Education or incarceration: Zero tolerance policies and the school to prison pipeline. Forum on Public Policy Online. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/61806559?accountid=28109

Lee, S. (2001). More than “model minorities” or “delinquents”: A look at Hmong American high school students. Harvard Educational Review, 71(3), 505–528.

Moyers, B. (2013). Bryan Stevenson on evening the odds in American justice. Moyers and Company. Interview, March 29, 2013. Retrieved from http://billmoyers.com/segment/bryan-stevenson-on-evening-the-odds-in-american-justice/

Noguera, P. (2008). What discipline is for: Connecting students to the benefits of learning. In M. Pollock (Ed.), Everyday antiracism 132–137. New York: The New Press.

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Snyder, H., & Stickman, M. (2006). Juvenile offenders and victims: 2006 National Report. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.

Solomon, R. (2004). Schooling in Babylon, Babylon in school: When racial profiling and zero tolerance converge. Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, 33. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/61859546?accountid=28109

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Youth United for Change/Advancement Project (2011, January). Zero tolerance in Philadelphia: Denying educational opportunities and creating a pathway to prison. Retrieved from http://b.3cdn.net/advancement/68a6ec942d603a5d27_rim6ynnir.pdf

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Why Social Justice Educators Must Engage Science IN All OF Our Classrooms*


On Monday March 31 (2002) at 11 a.m., a woman was sexually assaulted in a parking lot on the Virginia Tech campus—my campus since 1998. That day, in response to the reported sexual assault, the university issued a statement to the Virginia Tech community, “encourag[ing] prudence and vigilance on- and off-campus.” Further, all recipients were instructed: “When possible, walk with another individual and be aware of your surroundings. In addition, be mindful of campus emergency phones marked with blue lights.” While this message was sent to the entire campus, the aim was clear to me as a feminist and social justice activist, educator, and scholar—to socially control Virginia Tech women through fear. I see the use of fear to control the actions of women as part of a pattern of “blaming the victim” so common in sexual assault discourses, which seek to protect women from sexual assault by limiting their mobility, but in no way challenge the dominant discourses of masculinity and femininity that produce a “rape culture” on our university campuses, in K–12 educational contexts, and in our broader social environment.

Further, this type of response perpetuates the “rape myth” that a woman is too weak or helpless to challenge would-be assailants. This “rape myth” tells a woman that she must avoid all situations in which she could be attacked, thus severely limiting her basic freedom to move around in the world. This makes self-defense invisible as a valid response to the threat of rape and sexual assault. Further, this response perpetuates the dangerous fallacy that rapists are unknown men and ← 25 | 26 → that rapes occur primarily in unknown or unusual places. On the contrary, at least 80 percent of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows, and about 50 percent of sexual assaults occur in either the victim’s or assailant’s home. Most other assaults occur in public places like grocery store parking lots, libraries, jogging trails, laundry rooms—in other words wherever women must be on a daily basis (McCaughey, 1997; Fisher et al., 2000; Anderson, 2005; Tjaden & Thoennes, 2006; Manoj, 2013).

As a social justice educator at Virginia Tech, I was compelled to address this dangerous and oppressive response by the Virginia Tech police to the reported sexual assault. On the following day, my Spring 2003 Social Foundations of Education class, a required course for undergraduate preservice teachers at Virginia Tech, was scheduled to begin a discussion of gender, gender roles, and sexism in U.S. educational contexts. The goals for the class, as a whole, include the examination of historical examples, different contemporary contexts, and ourselves as sites to explore:

 Our personal values and beliefs as they shape our teaching practices,

 Our personal identities and cultural histories of race, class, gender, and sexuality as these affect our teaching philosophies,

 The popular myths and histories we have learned in our own schooling, families, and social experiences,

 Forms of truth and fiction portrayed by popular sources such as school textbooks and media (e.g., from popular culture to news and advertising) as these shape our values and beliefs.

At the beginning of this class, the day after the sexual assault, we mapped dominant discourses of masculinity and femininity, drawn from the assigned readings and my students’ everyday lives, as well as their teaching experiences: men are rational, women are emotional; men are strong and tough, women are weak; men are active, women are passive; and so forth. We then explored what kind of interactions these social norms create. Some of my students noted how these dominant discourses of masculinity and femininity work together to provide what is necessary for a family to function well—paraphrasing the Victorian (white, middle-to-upper-class) argument for the necessity of public and private spheres. In the context of the recent on-campus sexual assault and the university’s response to it, I pushed them: “What other kinds of interaction do these dominant discourses of masculinity and femininity naturalize?” In further discussion, we concluded as a class that the dominant discourses of masculinity and femininity make rape and other forms of sexual assault “natural.” They continually re-create what I called the “rape culture” above—an everyday situation in which women must continually fear being attacked and one in which any man could rape any woman at any moment. ← 26 | 27 →

At this point, I began to discuss how to challenge the dominant discourses of masculinity and femininity and through this critique the university’s response to the sexual assault. However, some of my students overtly resisted. They linked these dominant discourses with a biological determinism that then made it impossible (from their perspective) to challenge the discourses because they just are, they are natural. The students supported this claim by pointing to recent sociobiological and genetic research: “If it’s in our genes, we can’t escape it.”

As a social justice educator, I faced a significant challenge: I must critically engage that scientific knowledge, both its legitimacy as objective and its status as the ultimate authority within our society, and hence our classrooms. Otherwise, I would not succeed in my goal of encouraging these future educators to most effectively challenge sexual assault and everyday violence against women and girls. They will not succeed because they won’t be able to challenge the dominant discourses of masculinity and femininity. This chapter starts in the space of that challenge and with these questions: What happens if we all, as social justice educators, remain silent and do not accept the challenge to critically engage scientific knowledge? How will we create a more just and equitable world if our teaching is always already nullified by the authority and legitimacy of scientific knowledge at its most critical juncture—In this case when I seek to challenge the naturalness of sexual assault? What will happen? I believe that we will not succeed in meeting our social justice goals.


As social justice educators, we teach, in many ways, against the curriculum of our colleagues, against what counts as knowledge in their classrooms, and against the ways of knowing that they sanction. We challenge accepted truths by mapping and exploring power relationships amongst actors at the locations in which truth is created—both those actors typically recognized in the curriculum and those who are most often silenced and made invisible. We identify inequities and seek to address them and in this way encourage our students to act. In my classroom, I pointedly teach against the liberal multiculturalism available in my students’ other education courses and at Virginia Tech more broadly. Liberal multiculturalism addresses issues related to social diversity by celebrating differences, for instance, including non-Anglo American foods, holidays, or cultural traditions within the educational space. However, liberal multiculturalism ignores the social inequalities attached to these cultural differences, marginalizing the difference that matters—who has power and who does not? On the second day of my Fall 2002 class, my students admitted that in all their other education classes at Virginia Tech that have discussed diversity, they have never talked about power differentials. Proponents of liberal multiculturalism such as the teacher education curriculum at ← 27 | 28 → Virginia Tech do not (choose to) perceive institutional and systematic inequalities. They “take for granted that if individuals are taught to give up their individual prejudices and treat everyone the same, we will ‘all get along,’ and any remaining limits to equal opportunity will simply disappear” (Berlak & Moyenda, 2001, p. 94). I understand my class as working directly against this liberal multiculturalism embedded in the university and the education program, and in it I critique this approach to diversity education. I push my students to acknowledge ongoing inequalities, and look for explanations that move from “blaming the individual” to interrogating our society, and more specifically, the U.S. education system for its role in creating and maintaining these inequities.

Beyond challenging liberal multiculturalism, social justice pedagogies differ from “good teaching practices” in a number of related ways. First, social justice pedagogies recognize that teaching is a political act. How we educate and are educated shapes not only the ways with which we and our students interact with the world, but also the world itself. From this position, choices in pedagogical approaches are read as value-laden and as embodying different understandings of knowledge, knowledge production, authority, and expertise. These understandings then enable or limit what knowledge, knowledge production practices, authority, and expertise can be contested or challenged by ourselves and our students, and what is off-limits (i.e., what counts as “natural” or “normal,” what is privileged, and what is not). Because teaching is a political project, it is never neutral and any perceived neutrality is a political achievement. For social justice educators, this neutrality is not an accurate representation of the position of the instructor, the politics of the curriculum, or the ideology embedded within specific educational models.

Critically, social justice pedagogies mean locating the politics of pedagogy in the space of real classrooms. Bob Peterson, a fifth-grade teacher at La Escuela in Milwaukee, and editor of Rethinking Schools, writes: “Most teachers believe that politics should be kept out of the classroom. But it never is. Even a teacher who consciously attempts to be politically ‘neutral’ makes hundreds of political decisions—from the posters on the wall to attitudes toward holidays” (Peterson, 1994, p. 40). For Peterson, what a teacher does not do in the classroom is just as important as what the teacher does: What voices are silenced in the curriculum? What histo­ries and practices are marginalized? Are controversies recognized or made invisible? Peterson (1994) argues that ignoring the political nature of education in the classroom and pretending to have no opinion on controversial subjects as a teacher “is not only unbelievable, but sends a message that it’s OK to be opinionless and apathetic toward key social issues” (p. 40). This encourages students to accept the knowledge, knowledge production practices, authority, and expertise of the dominant culture(s). It thus limits their ability to critically analyze and potentially disrupt or transform (or even consciously choose to support) the practices legitimized by the status quo narratives inside and outside of the classroom. ← 28 | 29 →

Second, from this politicized and situated position, social justice approaches to education begin with a recognition of inequality and multiple forms of oppression in our world today––for example, oppressions based on intersecting differences of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, physical and mental ability, and other social factors. Social justice pedagogies “agree that oppression is a dynamic in which certain ways of being (or having certain identifications) are privileged in a society while others are marginalized” (Kumashiro, 2002, p. 31). Part of the educational project of social justice pedagogies, then, as I see it, is to challenge inequality both inside and outside of the classroom by examining the creation and maintenance of systems of oppressions and privileges. Further, social justice pedagogies encourage students to challenge the silences and omissions that Peterson (1994) identifies: “Whose voices? Which stories? What meanings? Who benefits? Why?”

But to return now to my crisis: the challenge of scientific knowledge (brought in by my students) within my social justice classroom. What resources are available to all social justice educators to challenge the legitimacy and authority of science? How can we include the detailed analysis of scientific truths within our curriculum? How can we challenge the dominant discourses legitimated by science that create and maintain inequality and oppression? What tools can we use in our classrooms and in our communities? What tools can we provide our students? Returning to Bob Peterson’s (1994) idea that what a teacher does not do in the classroom is just as important as what the teacher does, we must locate these tools to break our silence about science. I needed them here. You need them. Where and what are they?

Within the various social justice-oriented syllabi that I inherited from other instructors at Virginia Tech who teach the Social Foundations of Education class against the grain of dominant discourses, and within the books I reviewed and then selected for my course, I found a pervasive silence about science in the teacher education curriculum (e.g., Adams et al., 1997, 2000; Berlak & Moyenda 2001; Bigelow et al., 1994, 2001; and Loewen, 1996). With the exception of some discussion of the historical role of eugenics in creating a contemporary school system that includes IQ tests, standardized testing, and tracking (Berlak, 2001; Bigelow, 1994; Stoskepf, 1999), few teachers and educational theorists engaged the role that scientific knowledge—its legitimacy as objective and its authority as truth—plays in shaping our world, our educational experiences, and systemic patterns of haves and have-nots. In the first semester I taught the Social Foundations of Education course (Fall 2002); I struggled with the texts I had assigned and the student resistance based on the legitimacy and authority of science—like that described earlier. At these different crisis points (e.g., the unnaturalness of homosexuality, the biological determinism of race) I turned to research within Science and Technology Studies to place a critique of science within the official curriculum. So can you. ← 29 | 30 →


What is Science and Technology Studies (STS)? How can it serve as a resource for all social justice educators? STS research over the past two decades provides alternative models of science and scientific knowledge production. What I am calling STS research in this essay includes work by scholars in cultural studies, ethnic studies, and women’s studies, among other disciplines, that critically engages science, technology, and medicine, as well as work on these topics in anthropology, history, sociology, philosophy, and policy studies. By STS research, I mean more the critical interrogation of science, technology, and medicine rather than any specific institutional affiliation of the researcher. STS case studies produced from these different vantage points show that all sciences and technologies do have a politics, and thus provide a way of introducing an analysis of science into social justice pedagogies. In his introduction to the field, David Hess (1997) writes that STS provides

a conceptual tool kit for thinking about technical expertise in more sophisticated ways. Science Studies tracks the history of disciplines, the dynamics of science as a social institution, and the philosophical basis of scientific knowledge. It teaches, for example, that there are ways of developing sound criteria for evaluating opposing theories and interpretations, but also that there are ways of finding the agendas sometimes hidden behind a rhetoric of objectivity. In the process, Science Studies makes it easier for laypeople to question the authority of experts and their claims. It teaches how to look for biases, and it holds out a vision of greater public participation in technical policy issues. (p. 1)

Research in STS, as well as the example I provided at the beginning of this essay, points to the special and unique role that science plays in Western culture today. Scientific knowledge, knowledge production practices, authority, and expertise function as ultimate truth in our society—science speaks for nature. Scientific knowledge can then be used to achieve closure in public and private debates, in most cases silencing alternative knowledge systems and knowledge producers—including non-Western indigenous knowledge systems. Thus, through the lens of STS research, we can see that how we are trained to think about science—or not think about science—embodies different understandings of the status of its knowledge, knowledge production practices, authority, and expertise. These understandings then shape our ability (or lack of ability) to challenge science.

Most importantly, STS research allows us to challenge the authority and legitimacy of scientific research, and the use of scientific research to support racist, sexist, classist, and homophobic agendas (cf. Haraway, 1991, 1996; Harding, 1993). This ability is integral to the success of the social justice pedagogies and the creation of a more just and equitable world. ← 30 | 31 →

I now describe some of the possibilities for social justice pedagogies that choose to engage science through research and case studies in STS—to pick up the tools that are available to us as social justice educators. By choosing to critically engage science in our classrooms, we can challenge the following:

Objectivity: Research in STS shows that scientific knowledge is situated (i.e., context-specific and historically located in relationship to factors including race, class, gender, sexual orientation, physical and mental ability, and religion) and negotiated rather than objective. These biases (which cannot be removed or escaped but must be recognized and made visible to all) enter the production of scientific knowledge at all levels—from the ways scientists make sense of what they see in the lab or in the field to the types of projects that are funded. Making these biases or cultural imprints visible opens up ways for social justice educators and their students to actively engage science, and claims backed by science, without having to produce bigger or better science of their own. Debates previously closed by the authority of objective scientific claims are reopened, and decisions legitimated by science can now be understood as illegitimate, or at least worthy of continued discussion and analysis. Donna Haraway’s work on primatology (1990) and biotechnology (1996) deconstructs what she refers to as the god-trick of infinite vision, of objectivity, of the positionless position that allows scientists to speak and do with no accountability. In its place, she offers what she sees as a better account of the world, suggesting that instead of the god-trick of objectivity, we can insist “metaphorically on the particularity and embodiment of all vision” (Haraway, 1991, p. 189). For Haraway (1991), “feminist objectivity means quite simply situated knowledges” (p. 188). She concludes as follows:
So, not so perversely, objectivity turns out to be about particular and specific embodiment, and definitely not about the false vision promising transcendence of all limits and responsibility. The moral is simple: only partial perspective promises objective vision. This is an objective vision that initiates, rather than closes off, the problem of responsibility for the generativity of all visual practices. Partial perspectives can be held accountable for both its promising and its destructive monsters. (Haraway, 1991, p. 190)

Haraway’s “situated knowledges” and other research in STS on objectivity offers social justice educators new ways to talk about truth, authority, legitimacy, and expertise—and to hold science, scientists, and those who use the discourse of science accountable. (For a recent overview of feminist proposals for objectivity, see Crasnow, 2013.) ← 31 | 32 →

Embedded Values: Challenging objectivity by locating the production of scientific knowledge within specific local contexts begins to blur the distinction between scientific knowledge and other forms of knowledge. Scientific knowledge must then be understood as value-laden, rather than value-free. Recognizing the values already at work within scientific knowledge production practices provides us with an opportunity to ask whose values are present and why. We can then push to change these values to ones more consistent with a more socially just world. Vandana Shiva’s critical analysis of genetically modified organisms (1997, 1999, 2001b/1995) and large-scale dam projects in India (2001a), in combination with her political organizing, does just that. She asks scientists, policymakers, and the public to choose values that benefit humanity as a whole, rather than specific elite segments of the population and multinational corporations. She specifically challenges the supremacy of Western values and argues for a return to knowledge production rooted in indigenous values.
Scientific Progress: The dominant image of science is one of linear progress. Research in STS (Bijker et al., 1997/1987; Callon, 1999/1986; Hughes, 1983; Latour, 1987), however, shows that broadly defined social factors often play a critical role in determining the success or failure of specific theories and projects. Further, other research (see, e.g., Fleck, 1981/1935; Kuhn, 1996/1962) point to the disconnect between consecutive and simultaneous scientific research programs drawing into question, again, the idea of scientific progress. As social justice educators, what could happen if the notion of scientific progress is removed as a valid reason for pursuing certain scientific projects? What will happen if we consciously choose to define progress in new ways?
What Counts as Natural: In the example detailed at the beginning of this chapter, I described how notions of the “natural” limited my ability to challenge the dominant discourses of masculinity and femininity. Much work in STS challenges this idea of an ahistorical and universal “nature” by recovering histories of supposedly natural ideas such as gender (e.g., Haraway, 1990, 1991, 1996; Harding, 1993, 1998; Keller, 1988; Schiebinger, 1993), sexuality (e.g., Dreger, 1997; Foucault, 1990/1986; Terry, 1995), and race (e.g., Fausto-Sterling, 1995; Nelkin & Lindee, 1995; Schiebinger, 1993). Often, as this research describes, what counts as natural is determined by the specific historical lens of the observer. This lens is positioned, often along lines of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, physical and mental ability, and other social characteristics. More recent scholarship—including explorations of epigenetics (Khan, 2008; Kuzawa & Sweet, 2009; Rothstein et al., 2009; Thayer & Kuzawa, 2011; Combs-Orne, 2013; Ho, 2013)—further complicates notions of biological determinism by demonstrating the ways in which the social creates the natural: humans “literally embody—via processes which necessarily involve ← 32 | 33 → gene expression—the dynamic social, material, and ecological contexts into which we are born, develop, interact, and endeavor to live meaningful lives (Krieger, 2005, p. 2; cited in Fausto-Sterling, 2008, p. 676). By making these histories visible, we can draw into question the natural knowledge of today and ask the following question: What context is being disappeared from today’s scientific claims? Again, whose lens is science using and why?

All of these arenas of research, all of these tools available to us, challenge processes of classification: both the classification of what counts as scientific knowledge and what does not. In doing so, we challenge what determines who has a voice in our society, as well as social classifications supported by scientific knowledge. Other ongoing and intersecting oppressions based on categories such as gender, race, physical and mental ability, and sexual orientation function, in part, because of the historical and contemporary scientific classifications of these “differences.” STS work allows us to ask, “How would the world be different if we had the power to name and classify ourselves?”

Most important for social justice educators, all of these challenges to science open up space for nonscientists (i.e., social justice educators, students, community members, and others) to participate in scientific knowledge production and decision making. We cannot be dismissed as political and then excluded from scientific debates because science is just as political as we are. This can change what counts as authority and expertise in our communities. Our experiences can count and scientific knowledge no longer will be able to create instant debate closure. Further, these challenges to the legitimacy of objectivity and the authoritative role of science expand the dominant image of who can become a scientist and who can succeed, as well as what it means to succeed in science. Finally, recognizing the social nature of science creates an opportunity to set different aims for science and for our future. We can challenge and change all dominant discourses—even those that are most scientific and natural.


Let us return to my classroom. How did I challenge the assertion that the dominant discourses of masculinity and femininity are natural, and thus inescapable? In this section, I describe in detail the strategy I used to explicitly challenge science in my nonscience classroom from the first day of class the second time I taught the Social Foundations of Education (Spring 2003), which prepared me to deal with “naturalness” of gender discourses later in the semester. Here, I make the social and historical nature of scientific knowledge (specifically, knowledge about reproduction and ← 33 | 34 → fertilization) explicit, using the work of STS scholar Emily Martin (1991) to highlight the gendered context in which scientific knowledge is produced. While Martin’s article may not be accessible to students of all ages, this lesson can be adapted for a variety of age levels across the curriculum.


On the very first day of the second semester that I taught the Social Foundations of Education (after the first semester, the one in which I began to notice and examine the silence about science within the context of social justice pedagogies, and my resulting inability to most effectively challenge social inequities with my students), we immediately began to engage gender and science through an analysis of what Emily Martin refers to as the “romance between the egg and the sperm” (1991). Using the blackboard, we mapped the process of fertilization, paying special attention to the activities of the egg and the activities of the sperm. Students told the story of a passive egg and active, autonomous sperm—very similar to what Martin found in her examination of typical descriptions of reproduction in science textbooks:

The egg is seen as large and passive. It does not move or journey, but passively “is trans-ported,” “is swept,” or even “drifts” along the fallopian tube. In utter contrast, sperm are small, “streamlined,” and invariably active. They “deliver” their genes to the egg, “activate the developmental program of the egg,” and have a “velocity” that is often remarked upon. Their tails are “strong” and efficiently powered. Together with the forces of ejaculation, they can “propel the semen into the deepest recesses of the vagina.” For this they need “energy,” “fuel,” so that with a “whiplash-like motion and strong lurches” they can “burrow through the egg coat,” and “penetrate” it (Martin, 1991, p. 489).

Following our mapping of the relationship between the egg and the sperm, the class then watched the opening minutes of Look Who’s Talking—the 1989 film with John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, and Bruce Willis as the voice of the “Mikey.” At the beginning of the film, the viewer sees fertilization happen—much in the same way as we and Martin described: the egg floats to the uterus where it rests; the ejaculated sperm are on a mission, in competition with each other to get to the egg first. What I particularly like about this film is that the voice of the sperm (Bruce Willis) then becomes the voice of the fertilized egg, and then finally the voice of the child (“Mikey”). The egg’s agency—if it ever had any—completely disappears.

After we watched the film, I asked the students whether they wanted to add anything to our map of the fertilization process. The answer was “No.” They were satisfied that we had a true, biologically accurate, objective representation. At this point I began to pose some of the questions Martin raises in her STS research on ← 34 | 35 → the fertilization process: What is the relationship between our knowledge of the egg and the sperm and our cultural understandings of femininity and masculinity? Why do we know the egg as a “damsel in distress” and the sperm as the “heroic warrior to the rescue”? Is it possible that our dominant discourses of masculinity and femininity have shaped these “facts”? Is it credible to examine this aspect of the reproduction process and tell a different story if we were to look through different cultural lenses, with different discourses in mind?

Pointing to recent research on fertilization, Martin argues that it is possible to understand the interactions between the egg and the sperm differently. For instance, she describes how researchers at Johns Hopkins, while trying to develop a contraceptive that would work topically on sperm, found that “the forward thrust of sperm is extremely weak,” contradicting the “assumption that sperm are forceful penetrators” (p. 492). Martin (1991) further explains:

Rather than thrusting forward, the sperm’s head was now seen to move mostly back and forth. The sideways motion of the sperm’s tail makes the head move sideways with a force that is ten times stronger than its forward movement. So even if the overall force of the sperm were strong enough to mechanically break the [egg’s] zona, most of its force would be directed sideways rather than forward. In fact, its strongest tendency, by ten-fold, is to escape by attempting to pry itself off the egg. Sperm, then, must be exceptionally efficient at escaping from any cell surface they contact. And the surface of the egg must be designed to trap the sperm and prevent their escape. Otherwise, few if any sperm would reach the egg. (pp. 492–493)

Despite research like this pointing to the necessary agency of the egg, Martin then describes how scientists continue to use gender stereotypes (e.g., the “aggressive male,” the “damsel in distress,” and then the introduction of the egg as the “femme fatale”) to make sense of new findings. As Martin (1991) points out, “These revisionist accounts of egg and sperm cannot seem to escape the hierarchical imagery of older accounts” (p. 498). However, waking these “sleeping metaphors in science” (Martin, 1991, p. 501) offers us, as social justice educators, many opportunities to challenge gendered discourses in our classrooms and in our everyday lives.

Martin’s work challenges science by drawing our attention to the situatedness of scientific researchers, the way the gendered values embedded in their cultural frame shape the scientific knowledge production processes in their laboratories. More recent research confirms the importance of attending to the ways in which gendered metaphors (re)construct the natural world. For example, Upchurch and Fojtová (2009) examine the ways in which metaphors are employed by neuroscientists to both “get a handle on the subjects of our [microscopic] study” and “to teach students or convey information to others who are not specialists in the field” (Upchurch & Fojtová, 2009, p. 2). But, users of metaphors in neuroscience “may not appreciate the implications of the metaphors they use” (Upchurch & ← 35 | 36 → Fojtová, 2009, p. 2). In particular, Upchurch and Fojtová examine how metaphors for neuroscientific understandings of Astrocytes, a type of glial cell, have changed over time but remain both gendered and limiting. Prior to 1990, Astrocytes were understood to be lifeless “packaging material.” However, between 1990 and 2000, as new analyses of data suggested that Astrocytes played a role in central nervous system (CNS) communication, these glial cells were reconceptualized as “housekeepers” and “nursemaids” who do the gendered, supporting drudge work for the more important neuron cells. More recently in the 2000s, however, as further analysis indicated that glial cells actively regulate central nervous system communication, the gender of Astrocytes actually changed!

Today, glial cells are described as “masters of the synapse” and “board members, architects, construction supervisors, and conductors” (Upchurch & Fojtová, 2009, pp. 7, 8). While glial cells are now receiving the attention they seem to merit in brain science research, Upchurch and Fojtová remain concerned about the ways in which metaphors connected to masculinity and femininity and, relatedly, activity and passivity, both (1) create a hierarchy of important and unimportant cells and (2) the ways in which “the tendency to assign relative value to nervous system cells has almost certainly proved a hindrance to both basic and applied research” (Upchurch & Fojtová, 2009, p. 11) by limiting “our ability to comprehend the nature of brain disorders (for example, Miller, 2005), of learning and memory (for example, Diamond, 2006), and perhaps of consciousness itself” (Upchurch & Fojtová, 2009, p. 12). Last, Upchurch and Fojtová identify the ways in which girls as potential future scientists learn “that ‘passiveness’ and ‘supportiveness’ render an object unworthy of study, that passiveness and supportiveness are attributes belonging to females, and that occupations commonly filled by females are characterized by ‘mereness’, by a lack of significance to large, important enterprises” (Upchurch & Fojtová, 2009, pp. 12–13).

The argument of this chapter is that these metaphors also are training non-scientists and that making this training explicit and intervening within it is an important part of social justice education in non-science classrooms. In both cases, the scientists produce what counts as natural, rather than objectively reading the natural world. Notably, what is classified as “natural” mirrors the unequal gender relations of their everyday lives. Even when “scientific progress” is made, as Martin describes in her article, it is limited by the gendered expectations of the researchers: they resist alternative explanations of fertilization. From this vantage point, we can ask the following: How do our biology textbooks and curricula reinforce oppressive gender discourses? What are our students learning about gender and gender relations in science classrooms? How do other metaphors—metaphors about race, gender, sexual orientation, physical or mental ability, or other social factors—shape scientific knowledge today? Further, and most importantly for this study, we must ask, what happens when we challenge gender oppression in our nonscience classrooms and our everyday lives at the same time we allow gendered stereotypes in science to “act natural”? ← 36 | 37 →


So, again—What happened in my classroom on the day after the sexual assault? Oh, the suspense! How did I respond to my students’ support of the naturalness of dominant discourses of masculinity and femininity? As we left it, I was in crisis. My pedagogical goals were challenged by scientific truths. Was this challenge successful or had the groundwork done on the first day of class prepared us to critically engage what counts as natural?

My immediate response to it was, “Well, if it’s natural (and thus legitimate) for men to rape and sexually assault women, what is the one solution to ending rape and sexual assault? [Dramatic pause] We have to kill all the men!” While this caused many of my students to laugh, this rather unrealistic solution pushed them to reconsider the naturalness of gender discourses, and the question of whether or not we can intervene in its dominant discourses. We could then continue the discussion. One of my students then said, “Wait, this all goes back to the first day of class and the egg and the sperm. Is that intentional?” After I said, “Yes,” he continued: “You set the whole class up for this discussion.” While I had not, of course, intended for the sexual assault that occurred the previous day, I did very intentionally foreground a challenge to the authority and legitimacy of scientific knowledge within our classroom, which then created the space for us to challenge genetic determinism and sociobiology. At this point, I encouraged him to tell the rest of the class what he had posted on the discussion board 24 hours previously:

“Gender, however, is how your sex is portrayed socially.” I must say I think that is an awesome line that Tiffany brought up. I mean, think about it…on Day 1 of this class what was the topic about? “The Sperm vs. The Egg.” I think it is rather interesting to put it all together now, because at first I thought we were just trying to “b.s.” the first day of class. We organized our thoughts of men versus women on day one, and it makes more sense now. Lorber on page 204 of RDSJ writes, “Gender is one of the major ways that human beings organize their lives.” Is that not exactly what we did on the first day of class?? Although I feel a part of the first day was a “get-to-know-you” session, I do think we fell into the pattern talked about by Lorber.

My discussion of Martin’s article then became the context for our continued discussion about the dominant discourses of masculinity and femininity—a challenge to the legitimacy and authority of science had been made. Science, naturalness, genetic determinism, sociobiology, masculinity, and femininity were at least now in question.

For the next class (our second day and last scheduled day focused on examining gender, gender roles, and sexism in U.S. educational contexts), I assigned two groups of students to research sociobiology. First, what is sociobiology and what does it say about gender? And second, what critiques of sociobiology exist? After ← 37 | 38 → the presentation of this research to the rest of the class, we continued our discussion about the naturalness (or unnaturalness) of the gender discourses with which we are so familiar. Critically, we were able to have this discussion whether or not all of my students were convinced. This was a major contribution of my social justice teaching practices.

I know for certain that not all of the students walked away from this discussion or from my class convinced that a social justice approach to education is the best pedagogical choice or that the objectivity, authority, and legitimacy of science can be challenged or even that we can talk a different way about the interaction between the egg and the sperm. However, I do feel that the combination of social justice pedagogies and the critical analysis of science provided students with access to the right tools to create greater equity and justice in their classrooms, their schools, and their communities if they choose to do so. They could now more effectively challenge sexual assault. They could also have this discussion in their future classrooms. One of my students even was interviewed later for a critical article on the university’s response to the sexual assault. She brought this up on the last day of class, indicating that she would never have critiqued Virginia Tech’s sexual assault prevention policy before this class and would never, never have spoken up about it, signed a petition that critiqued it, and then talked to the college newspaper. In her evaluation of herself at the end of class, she wrote: “I learned that one voice CAN make a difference. What a mind-opener!” For me, her change in perspective throughout the course counts very much as a success. I see the challenge to the legitimacy and authority of scientific knowledge that we undertook in our classroom as a key feature in her transformation.

The tools to challenge the legitimacy and authority of science—tools that situate and position objectivity; draw attention to its embedded values; reopen for discussion what counts as scientific progress and as natural—position us as social justice educators to critically engage science and to demand its accountability for the inequalities it creates and maintains. To most effectively challenge oppression, all social justice educators across the curriculum must expand our available resources to include the critical analysis of science as part of our ongoing projects to create a more just and equitable world. Without these new tools, we will not succeed—and we must.


In the decade since I began the first draft of this chapter, much has changed—for me and for the world at large. No longer a graduate student in Science & Technology Studies at Virginia Tech, I am now an associate professor at California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) in San Luis Obispo, CA—and am recently tenured ← 38 | 39 → in the Department of Ethnic Studies and jointly appointed in the Department of Women’s & Gender Studies. I was, in fact, initially hired at Cal Poly to teach an upper-level course on the complex relationships between gender, race, science, and technology, and at least 60 percent of my students each quarter are in majors other than the natural sciences or engineering. In many ways, I am privileged to be doing the exact work I identified as crucial when I wrote the earlier version of this chapter.

George W. Bush is no longer in office—while not named in the chapter, his presidency and the “Global War on Terror” informed my entire post-9/11 world. We have, as a nation, in fact elected the first non-white President, Barack Obama. The “Global War on Terror” is dissipating, at least in name, discourse, and visibility.

And yet, at my current university, sexual assaults remain radically under-reported. When on-campus sexual assaults are reported to the University Police Department, the Clery Act–mandated communications about these sexual assaults routinely blame the victim, almost always emphasize strangers as potential and most likely assailants, and rarely focus any message at potential bystanders or rapists.

As a country, we seem to continue to operate much of the time with an implicit biological determinism—sacrificing the futures of huge sections of our populace by cutting funding for public education and social services, and acting as if gaps in success and deficits of opportunity and access are natural and expected rather than produced and maintained. In some cases, biological determinism as an excuse for and explanation of inequality is more explicit. Think, for example, of the Harvard doctoral dissertation of Dr. Jason Richwine, until recently a Senior Policy Analyst for the Heritage Foundation, which argued that “Latino immigrants to the United States are and will likely remain less intelligent than ‘native whites’” (Beauchamp, 2013).

Perhaps the most important social justice work that we can do today is to continue to intervene in the assumption of biological explanations for differences that exist between groups. As Barbara Katz Rothman (2001) notes:

What confuses us is that the differences exist physically, but matter socially. There are physical differences, and even physical consequences. But there is not a physical cause-and-effect relationship between them. Take something relatively simple: There is a much higher infant mortality rate among blacks than among whites in America. The differences between black and white women are there, real and measurable. But those differences, the physical, biological characteristics marked as race—level of melanin in the skin, the shape of the nose or whatever—are not the cause of the different infant mortality rates. The darkness of the mother is the physical, biological phenomenon, as is the death of the baby. But the relationship between the two is a social reality: it is the social consequence of race that causes the physical reality of the death. (Rothman, 2001, p. 63)

Ongoing research on the relationship between low birth weight and the likelihood of dying from cardiovascular disease (CVD) (or suffering from diseases that can lead to CVD such as diabetes or hypertension) demonstrates that low birth ← 39 | 40 → weight is correlated with maternal experiences of environmental and social inequality and with fetal exposure to high levels of cortisol and/or low nutritional status, which are further correlated with socially produced epigenetic changes that can be tracked and measured (Kuzawa & Sweet, 2009). In fact, while the African American/black mortality rate in the United States is 1.5 times that of whites (Keppel et al., 2002), and the risk of dying from heart disease is 1.3 times higher in African American/black populations compared to whites (Mensah et al., 2005), controlling for low birth weight in the analyses of incidence of CVD “explains away” these racial disparities (Cruickshank et al., 2005).

This example is significant for all social justice educators, whether in science or non-science classrooms, because it highlights the importance of resisting biological explanations for inequalities until all possible social explanations are ruled out—or, in this case, in. Socially caused inequalities require social action, and it is here where all of our students have the opportunity to excel.


*Special thanks is extended to Megan Boler for serving as an inspiration to the author and to everyone who wishes to take social justice seriously in their classrooms and in their lives.


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A Teaching Story

Academic Writing and the Silence of Oppression


Educators in schools across the United States are being asked to consider equity issues regarding increasingly heterogeneous student populations. The results have produced tensions between official language use (traditional formal academic discourses) and a variety of “minority” discourses (Luke, 1995–1996), especially in written language. A “minority” discourse in the academy may be viewed as one infused with language patterns associated with certain ethnicities, races, classes, and regions that differ from traditional practices utilized in schools.

Many students struggling to become more skillful users of the discourses expected in secondary and college-level written work become convinced they are simply “bad writers.” They have entered the world of teachers and college professors who often valorize academic discourses and marginalize or devalue other discourses that are a part of students’ lives. At both levels, the efforts of well-intentioned gatekeepers to critique and “fix” the language differences they find have resulted in some students becoming fearful of writing and academic writing tasks. In large part, this story emerged from my own experience of watching young writers struggle within the academy to find a voice and gain acceptance of their writing. Sometimes silenced in ways they do not understand, many have come to see their writing practices as inferior or incompetent, receiving the negative responses of others more as a “truth” than a social construction.

They live these “truths,” unaware that the social and political negotiations that reinforce this labeling and sustain these hegemonic practices may stifle them ← 45 | 46 → as students who are expected/required to write. They have become powerfully silenced, believing their writing to be “inferior” when, in fact, “difference” may be the issue. It is my contention that, as educators, we must examine both the social and political forces that have created, perpetuated, and supported the oppressive situation that exists for some student writers and helps them find avenues to more positive writer identities.


Over the last four decades, researchers began studying in earnest what composition theorists were calling “basic writers.” Harris (1997) found three central metaphors used to typify these diverse students who many in the academy have deemed “problem writers.” While “problem writers” have been identified for decades, this population seemed to increase considerably when post–World War II college opportunities were presented to ever-wider groups of students. Difference from the norms and expectations of what had been the traditional college student became of increasing concern.

Additionally, the acceptance of students with more varied ethnic, racial, and class backgrounds in the Open Admissions movement of the 1960s refocused higher education’s attention to writing issues. In the 1970s and into the 1980s these writers were seen as “deficient in growth” or as immature users of the language. This stunted growth metaphor emphasized the need for students’ improved mental conceptions regarding writing and frequently saw practitioners offering sequential steps to help students become better writers (Harris, 1997).

This view was later replaced by an initiation metaphor, strongly influenced by Bartholomae (1986). It characterized writers who did not measure up to the academic standard as “uninitiated” into the discourse community of the university. It encompassed the concept that entering the university was not just an intellectual step, but a social and political step as well, which involved accepting new value systems and cultural practices (Rose, 1985). Both of these earlier models regarded writers who did not conform to the university standards as somehow immature as writers or outsiders to the still-unquestioned standard of academic discourse. By the 1990s, however, a major shift took place when that standard began to be questioned in earnest.

Conflict, the latest metaphor to be embraced by composition theorists, is best articulated by Lu (1991, 2006) in her discussion of the political dimensions of language choice. The emphasis changed from unquestioned acceptance of dominant discourses to discourses as political choice. Writer identity came to be viewed as related to issues of race, class, and gender, and includes the social and political considerations of language. Lu believes that students often feel marginalized, or ← 46 | 47 → like outsiders to academic discourse, because of the way their own discourses have been received in the academy. Marginal writer identities can evolve when students are unable to disrupt the practices of the academy that have made them outsiders. The situation cannot improve if they remain without access to conversations that provide building blocks to a more emancipating understanding of their situation and the factors influencing it.

This new understanding of student conflict with writing has not, for the most part, reached our state testing boards. While composition scholars are familiar with the concept, it has not become embedded in practitioners’ literature or the teaching vocabularies of many college and high school instructors.


This teaching story involves the study of Len, one of the students in my college writing class. Through him, I discovered how the more prevalent “stunted growth” discourse of our classrooms can negatively impact writer identity today. Len was in my required junior-year writing class for education majors at a large public university in the Northeast. He was Haitian American, in his senior year, and planned to enter the field of education, but still unsure in which capacity.

I selected Len to study because he had an uneasy relationship, stated and observed, with aspects of the academic discourses he had been required to adopt. His concerns about peer response further reflected his fragile relationship with academic writing. Of particular interest to me, as researcher and instructor of this course, was the surprisingly positive relationship to writing I discovered when Len participated in expressivist as opposed to traditional formal writing. Information about his difficult earlier life in another country, his language history, and his fragmented early schooling cast light on how difference pays a price in the academy. He had put off, until his senior year, this required course and was a frequent “resister,” advising me that his papers were too incomplete to discuss or “forgotten” at home, though his attendance was excellent. Len’s class journal revealed a strongly held view that learning another language should not make one forget his/her native tongue, whatever it may be, though he commented that this is not easy to do in America.

Because of his classroom silence, many students did not realize Len was bilingual or Haitian, assuming he was African American. Even when other bilingual students shared personal experiences, he did not openly reveal those aspects of his identity until the end of the semester. Whatever had silenced him was powerful. In conversation one day, when I told him how important it was for others to hear his voice of experience, he told me solemnly that many did not want to hear opinions very different from their own. ← 47 | 48 →

Using a technique called Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA), I examined the language Len (and other students) brought to the classroom in an effort to unpack the social, cultural, and political influences that were at work in it. Norman Fairclough’s (1995, 2003) CDA approach requires examining segments of language (a sentence or a phrase at a time, for example) in order to determine embedded ideologies. By combining this method with classroom assignments that had students describing who they were as writers, what they believed had influenced that writer identity, and best or worst experiences with writing, I was able to search out the different discourses at work in their language, an arduous though enlightening task. For example, linking Len’s ideas such as “I enjoy telling stories about my adolescence” to expressivist philosophy is easy in retrospect, but initially coming to understand and interpret which different philosophies were at work took some time.

Once I realized, however, that Len did not dislike all writing and, in fact, enjoyed more personal assignments, that pattern became easy to spot in my other students. Len’s dislike of formal academic writing was another pattern repeated in other students who, like Len, felt confined by the rigors of formal language and uncomfortable with genres whose required discourse felt unfamiliar and awkward. One African American student talked about how writing in a way that was different from his normal speech felt pretentious and phony. I began to notice that quite a few of my students identified as “bad writers,” dreading or detesting writing when confined to formal academic discourses. Far easier to find in Len’s language was the more typical ideology of today’s test-driven schools and the push for homogeneity in writing. Len wrote that he felt “different from other students” and was quick to label himself a poor writer. He also feared the judgment of his peers, which had made him feel “low” and incompetent.

I would like to report that by the end of my class Len had gained confidence in his ability to write. Unfortunately, I do not believe that is the case. In his final class-assigned letter to me, he reiterated many of the themes you will find in the microanalyses that follow. These include the idea that he is “different” from others, still fears the comments of those who read his writing, and despite the fact that peer response may help him complete a better paper, he would choose not to do it. This was the discourse he came with, and despite discussions on the complexities and politics of language, it is the discourse with which he left. I am left wondering whether the ideas of social and cultural influence and the power of academic discourse to both free and oppress had touched him and realize, as is usual with my students, I will probably never know. Len’s history, set beside the microanalysis that follows, tells a story of identity that could be missed in an instructor’s need to “get through curriculum” and prepare students for writing in the “real world.” ← 48 | 49 →


While I analyzed a number of Len’s texts, I have combined a few of the pieces in order to demonstrate how discourse analysis can work. The following integrates Len’s discussion of writer identity, influences, and his worst experiences with writing.

1. I never thought of myself as a good writer.

2. But there are times that I enjoyed writing certain topics that cash (catch) my interest and most important my readers.

3. I like writing about things that happened to me as a young adolescent.

4. My worst experience with writing is the remarks that I get from people evaluating, correcting my writing.

5. The first evaluation is always full with numerous remarks on how to improve the writing.

6. I hate watching someone evaluating my writing because of the remarks and comments that I expect to see.

7. I’d rather have them correct it without me being present.

8. Many times I get response back from people who evaluate my writing like how to make my writing more accurate, need more details, and they always tell me that I have unnecessary information in the paper.

9. I only ask people that know me first, and my writing to read my writing because they have better understanding of my writing.

10. They are more likely to understand the structure of my writing than those that do not know my writing or me.

11. It makes me feel unsecured about my work based on people’s reactions to the writing.

12. I am a student that needs serious help writing a paper of any subject.

13. I am an individual that has strong feeling for my writing.

14. I decided to start ahead of times because of the numerous corrections that I feel that I might have to do to do an accurate writing assignment.

15. Throughout the semester I like to improve my writing abilities so I can be a better writer.

16. I look forward to quitting the weakness that I have in papers.

17. I also know that all the problems and weaknesses may not be taken care of at once.

18. But I feel I can improve those weaknesses.


In line 1, Len makes his claim that he has never thought of himself as a good writer, probably drawing his identity from the stunted growth discourse he has faced in his ← 49 | 50 → academic endeavors. In lines 2 and 3, he attempts to explain, however, that there are some kinds of writing he actually enjoys. Embedded in his words is expressivist philosophy, that is, writing that values personal voice and story and holds meaning and interest for the writer. As a writing teacher of many years, I was surprised how easy it was for me to miss the enjoyment that personal writing can hold for even the most reluctant college writers! I came to realize that when Len shared his personal experiences, his audience was able to focus on his ideas, whereas in academic papers, they seemed to focus on issues of grammar, structure, and spelling. Through his words, we witness Len’s tremendous struggle and clear awareness that writing in the academy was a landmine of problems for him. Academic writing created frustration as he discovered that no matter how much time and effort he put in, he felt very little success.

In line 4, Len makes the decision to focus on the “worst” writing experiences, telling his story in a way that again reflects the stunted growth discourse so familiar in classrooms. In the past, others have positioned him as an immature writer with grammatical difficulties, and here we see he both accepts and subtly resists that identity. The worst thing, he says, are “the remarks” of those who read his work. The fact that the “first evaluation is always full with numerous remarks on how to improve the writing” (line 5) is problematic for him. Though it demonstrates a lack of access to the idea that writers, novice and professional alike, are commonly dissatisfied with early drafts, we can see he also personalizes the responders’ comments and seems to interpret them as a reflection on his personhood, perhaps tying it to his familiarity with institutionalized racism. The fact that he hates being present during response (lines 6, 7) calls attention to the complexity of his writer identity. Is it oppression he feels? What social situations has he faced that make this student feel fearful and powerless when it comes to a discussion of his writing? Because he realizes another indictment of deficiency awaits him, he would choose to be elsewhere.

In line 8, Len reveals the types of critique he has received. The work needs to be more “accurate” and have more “details,” and he needs to eliminate “unnecessary information.” In a process classroom these would not be untypical or harsh responses. For Len, who seems to feel battered by the responses of others, however, they are crushing. Convinced that his writing is “deficient” and feeling positioned as an “outsider” after trying long and hard to improve, he appears to conclude that nothing works to the satisfaction of those judging his work. His peers and professors, perhaps familiar with the initiation model discussed earlier, continually focus on “fixing” his language so he can “enter the university” (i.e., write a paper that meets the “standard”).

Len never takes up a discourse that emphasizes how second-language speakers often struggle with the grammar of their adopted language. He does not mention that being unable to articulate ideas “well” in the academic discourse of a second language is a common struggle. He does not even say that appropriating the conventions of academic discourse may be difficult for anyone who has not had ← 50 | 51 → much access to them in the past. Without access to classroom discussion on that topic, he would, of course, lack a political discourse to do so.

Lines 9 and 10 hit home hard for me. He says it takes people who know him to understand his writing. Here his ideas border on the political as he hints that second-language speakers may be in conflict with the system. While constantly correcting the spoken English of non-native speakers is something most of us would not do, ironically, we feel comfortable red-lining their papers in our classes. Len looks for those who understand the patterns of his English and who will not judge him, as he feels native English-speaking classmates do. He seeks those who will just help him adjust his written discourse to one that the professor seeks. Len’s words reinforce the idea that, in practice, initial readings of papers may best be read with a focus on ideas, not language constructions.

Additionally, Len’s resistance to peer response groups tells a story of negative judgments that he seems to assume extend beyond the writing to his personhood. Len feared peer responders in the classroom but did embrace his own version of process, shaping it to his needs. He told me he found people he trusted, people who really knew him, and would help make his papers fit class requirements. He found comfort in the fact that they would not judge him as incompetent. In our quest to have students work cooperatively in our classrooms, do we subject them to a situation where they may not feel helped at all, but pushed even further into the margins? Students like Len have taught me that we do, despite our best intentions.

In line 13, Len says he cares deeply for his writing, as if a reader might assume that someone who writes as he does must not care. How many times in the traditional classroom have teachers made the assumption that “errors” indicate carelessness, laziness, or a lack of effort? He refutes this by saying he spends much time writing and starts “ahead of times” (line 14) to make sure he completes an accurate assignment. No matter how hard he pulls on those bootstraps, however, he has not felt like a successful writer. He appears to trust that the problem is within him and looks forward to improving his writing abilities and “quitting the weakness” (lines 15–16), as if it were a choice and a matter of self-control. In lines 17–18, though, he says he knows “that all the weaknesses may not be taken care of at once,” but he “can improve,” another possible echo of teachers’ bootstraps discourse. Len typically blames himself for being a poor writer, appearing to accept the ideology of stunted growth. The discourses of so many classroom writing instructors, including myself, reverberated painfully as I analyzed his reflections.


I studied a number of Len’s portfolio papers, learning more about him, writing classes in general, and even about my own teaching as I dug deeper and examined ← 51 | 52 → which discourses could have a negative effect on the writer identities of students. Len’s struggle with academic discourses demonstrates the thinking that can lurk behind a strong negative writer identity in the classroom. His case also reflects the complexity of writing in the academy for students whose first language is not English and for whom race and/or class have been marginalizing factors. While there are discourses that could help him (and others) better understand his writing patterns and help alleviate his writing anxiety, Len, like most of my students, remained unable to access them, as that political conversation is so seldom a part of our classrooms.

Len’s story also points out how certain uses of the process writing method can be a source of great trepidation and embarrassment for students already feeling the effects of marginalization. When he takes up process discourse, his resistance is evident. He demonstrates how traditional formal discourse’s emphasis on language structures and form contribute to a silencing of voices and a need to find trusted responders who understand that there is more to a person than the writing structures they see on the page.

The teaching of formal academic discourse and oppression are linked in subtle ways. First, there are multiple aspects of writer identity, and even those who may at first appear to dislike writing may be ardently seeking a discourse that allows their voices to be heard. Second, without access to liberating discourses, students tend to blame themselves for being “different,” and accept the marginalized position of stunted or uninitiated offered to them in many classrooms. While microanalysis of Len’s words gave some evidence of resistance to the hegemonic influences of certain educational discourses, he clearly lacked access to other discourses that may have better explained his struggles in the academy. The academy has shaped and limited his writer identity, and his words demonstrate how much he has been influenced by that judgment—and how difficult it is to understand the complexity of his situation in it.

Do not hear me saying that we should not teach Standard English. Do hear the following as my message. The teaching of writing and language is a political act. By explicitly teaching writing as such, we help demystify the power of institutions to define and label what is “good” and what is “correct.” By redefining the variety of dialects as different ways to communicate, and by explicitly saying that use of particular dialects in certain situations has social and political implications, we help students understand that difference does not have to equate with “less than” or “ignorant.”

Unfortunately, my class did not offer a strong enough sociopolitical discourse to help Len construct a more positive and productive writer identity. We had talked about the politics of language, but, in retrospect, what I offered was not enough to help him map substantial change. Clearly, the road to empowerment is not straight, steady, or uncomplicated, and coming to see oneself through a new lens ← 52 | 53 → is a process, not an overnight conversion. Additionally, the power of judgment in institutions silences and maintains the status quo in many nuanced ways. As a writing teacher in the academy, fulfilling the required curriculum tasks often seems overwhelming. Despite that, I have come to believe a discussion of language politics and how and why some students may be in conflict with them is an educational responsibility. Writing instructors and workshop coordinators operate in the modes we were taught, often convinced that our quest to create “good writers” involves transformation of the writer rather than redefinition of the issue.

When we teach formal academic discourse, if that is a goal, we can learn to do it in ways that do not leave second-language students (and others) feeling colonized or marginal to the discourse. Wider acceptance of more multicultural discourses and more freedom of presentation in academic writing tasks may help students move more effectively through academic writing tasks. Gaining meta-knowledge regarding how dominant discourses affect us in society may allow students like Len to feel less marginalized and compliant. Conflict in the institution, as Lu (1991) presents it, allows for struggle and uncertainty as it deals with issues of diversity. Though struggle can be discomforting, it can eventually provide for a more empowered view of the world of writing and one’s position in it. As Matsuda (2006) suggests, effective writing teachers may “need to reimagine the composition classroom as the multilingual space that it is, where the presence of language differences is the default (p. 649). Some writing scholars, as well, are now calling for a translingual approach to writing, assuming the homogeneity educators have demanded is an impediment to communication and meaning (Horner, Lu, Royster, & Trimbur, 2011, p. 303).

I find it helpful to focus on the idea that it is the discourse used to interpret the experience rather than the experience itself that is at the heart of identity for our students. How they and we discuss, respond to, and react to writing can move us to a critical dialogue about relevant history, culture, language, and writing. Knowledge and power create and re-create themselves through curriculum, so it becomes the responsibility of educators to find ways to successfully include those students who have been systematically excluded. By explicitly teaching how discourses operate and work to give or deny access in society, we can be part of a process of liberation rather than contributors to a world of oppressive silence.

We can also shift away from an emphasis on a standardized product and give students access to a more epistemological discussion of writing models. This is not to say we should eliminate all classical modes of rhetoric, only that we can also make room for more expressivist forms. We can also teach students to critically reflect on their own writing and invite them “to become researchers of their own writer identities and processes and to develop the discourses needed to understand the complex journey of negotiating academic writing” (Fernsten & Reda, 2011, p. 181). Furthermore, by explicitly discussing competing ways of writing, we can help ← 53 | 54 → students come to understand why they prefer writing in a certain way and why they identify negatively when required to adopt certain discourses.

Most of us strive for a pedagogical approach that encourages students to write while allowing them wider avenues for success. We can do this by helping to eliminate the fears and negativity so often associated with the red pen and responses like the one a devastated student told me about, “This paper is an embarrassment. Take a writing course!” Hybrid discourses, that is, discourses that combine the formality of academic discourse with more personalized writing genres, may help students achieve a more balanced view of themselves as writers, tackle writing tasks with more confidence, and further understanding of effective writing for all.


Bartholomae, D. (1986). Inventing the university. Journal of Basic Writing, 5(1), 4–23.

Fairclough, N. (1995). Critical discourse analysis: The critical study of language. New York: Longman.

Fairclough, N. (2003). Analyzing discourse: Textual analysis for social research. London: Routledge.

Fernsten, L.A., & Reda, M. (2011). Helping students meet the challenges of academic writing. Teaching in Higher Education, 16(2), 171–182.

Harris, J. (1997). A teaching subject: Composition since 1966. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Horner, B., Lu, M., Royster, J.J., & Trimbur, J. (2011). Opinion: Language difference in writing: Toward a translingual approach. College English, 73(3), 303–321.

Lu, M. (1991). Redefining the legacy of Mina Shaughnessy: A critique of the politics of linguistic innocence. Journal of Basic Writing, 10(1), 26–40.

Lu, M. (2006). Living-English work. College English, 68(6), 605–618.

Luke, A. (1995–1996). Text and discourse in education: An introduction to critical discourse analysis. In M. Apple (Ed.), Review of research in education (pp. 1–48). Washington, DC: American Education Association.

Matsuda, P.K. (2006). The myth of linguistic homogeneity in U.S. college composition. College Composition, 68(6), 637–651.

Rose, M. (1985). The language of exclusion: Writing instruction at the university. College English, 47(4), 341–359.

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Contesting Authoritative Discourses in Education


Joe and Letitia: We see three themes that run through all of our chapters and resonate with us as readers and social justice educators.
   First, there is a pervasive, damaging silence in education. We so often fail to fully name and critique problematic practices such as the ones presented in these chapters: the privileging of elite discourses; the use of dubious constructions in science; and the enforcement of zero-tolerance discipline policies that feed the school-to-prison pipeline. If meaningful change is to occur, we must equip educators at all levels with the tools they need to speak out—to practice effective critical discourse without fear of repercussion.
   Second, when such silences are not addressed, marginalized students tend to blame themselves for what has happened to them. We are stuck in a dangerous “deficit model” paradigm. Rather than beginning with the funds of knowledge that students bring to school, we focus almost exclusively on what they lack. And in most cases, what they lack is white, middle-class status. Again, scholars and educators must name and seek to dismantle the institutional structures that reinforce this paradigm, such as white privilege, class privilege, and discursive privilege. ← 55 | 56 →
   Third, teaching is “always already” a political act. It is simply not an option to be “neutral” in the classroom. A belief in classroom neutrality, even in the natural sciences, is itself a political ideology. We need educators who are “explicitly teaching how discourses operate and work to give or deny access in society [so that] we can be part of a process of liberation rather than contributors to a world of oppressive silence” (a beautiful point, Linda). We believe these chapters highlight the need for educators at all levels to be actively political in their practice and to advocate for students who may experience various kinds of injustice or marginalization due to race, class, gender, sexual orientation, language, discourse, and/or ability.
Linda: Letitia and Joe, the dominant culture of schools, now heavily imbued with the discourse of “standardization,” seems to be penalizing more and more families like Bridget’s. While my own case study focuses on language difference, I am reminded by your study that “outsiders” are created and defined by myriad factors. Teachers, who largely reflect dominant culture, seldom get the opportunity to study how their own sociocultural histories bias their interactions with diverse students. Problematizing one’s own cultural understandings, especially when those understandings reflect the norms of the dominant culture, is a complex task. Discerning the issues of inequality and social injustice faced by children like Jordan and Philip takes work.
  Conducting research helped me think differently about young writers in the classroom, though I cannot honestly say my practice was magically or quickly transformed. As our three chapters intimated, living into a practice that halts marginalization and encourages transformation is the challenge, especially when teachers and professors are, in most cases, the gatekeepers of the existing system. Changes have been made, and it can be painful at times to shine a light on past practices, but living into Freire’s world is more easily imagined than lived on a daily basis.
  Unfortunately, the “work” of teachers is now directed toward testing and homogeneity rather than a more socially responsive curriculum that embraces the vital social needs of diverse learners and their widely differing academic needs. Your chapter pushes my realization that change takes partners from many varied arenas, as we are all part of an intricate puzzle. Too often, we (I) can be blind to the contributions of others as we struggle with our own “fit.” ← 56 | 57 →
Joe and Letitia: Linda, we agree that standardization and an overemphasis on testing has contributed to a series of problems in our schools, perhaps most profoundly, a “normalization” of white, middle-class cultural values. This tends to further marginalize students of color like Philip, Jordan, and Len, and it can prevent white students and teachers from seeing and potentially critiquing their own culture, since it is so often presented as “the norm.” Having said that, we also believe that it is possible for talented and committed teachers to do effective work within a culture of standardization. From our perspective, the best teachers simultaneously prepare students to succeed on “the standard” (whatever that may be) while teaching against the norming effects of standardization. Such teachers seek to honor the funds of knowledge that students bring to school. We see this as the kind of teaching practice that you are advocating for in your chapter. It’s not that we should stop teaching “standardized” English, but we need to do so in a way that honors and puts to use the wonderful variety of languages and discourses that students bring to school.
Jane: Both of your chapters push me to imagine what it would look like if I were to recast the narrative at the heart of mine through a lens that simultaneously prioritizes race, class, immigration histories, language status, and other social factors that intersect with and shape experiences and meanings of gender/ing as well as the institutional realities that structure our lives.
  This push is amplified by two new personal realities. First, in 2007, I was hired as a tenure-track faculty member in Ethnic Studies (jointly appointed in Women’s & Gender Studies) at another predominantly white and middle-class polytechnic university: California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. Here, I was challenged by students and colleagues to see that while the texts and perspectives I had used to structure the gender, race, science, and technology course I was hired to teach talked about race and its intersections with gender (as well as other types of intersectionality), the radical insights of intersectionality were often treated as additions to rather than transformations of the research questions driving readings and class discussions. From this new position, I was pushed to re-ask, How is Feminist STS a resource for social justice educators and how is it not?
  As co-chair of the Science & Technology Taskforce of the National Women’s Studies Association, I was able to explore these questions in a 2009 roundtable that asked, “How has ← 57 | 58 → intersectionality been embraced, enhanced, and/or reconceptualized by the field [of Feminist STS]? How has it been resisted? Have we, should we, or how do we move beyond “gender and …stories to put race, class, or sexuality at the center of our analyses?”
  My individual contribution to the roundtable focused on an analysis of anthologies in Feminist STS that were published between 2000 and 2009 (Lederman & Bartsch, 2000; Mayberry, Subramaniam, & Weasel, 2001; Kourany, 2002; Fox, Johnson, & Rosser, 2006; Wyer et al., 2009). I found that very few included articles treating race and gender as equally present factors. When race and/or other social factors were explicitly named, they were mentioned in/as “gender and…” narratives. Too, these “gender and…” narratives were largely found in article introductions and conclusions or in the sections written by the editors—rather than in the hearts of the articles except if the focus was on women outside the United States or as immigrants to the United States. This raised concerns for me about the ways in which “gender and…” narratives in Feminist STS may function as passive racism. (I should note, however, that there are many fantastic texts that do articulate and model anti-racist STS [e.g., Harding, 1993; Hammonds & Herzig, 2009; Slaton, 2010].) In addition, the 2013 edition of Women, Science, and Technology (Wyer et al.) explicitly centralizes race and ethnicity to a much greater extent than previous editions.)
  Secondly, the other new reality that I am using to re/understand my chapter—and the ways in which race does not function as an explicit point of attention in my discussion of sexual assault, student response, and pedagogical practice—is the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, in which the shooter, Seung-Hui Cho—and the shootings, and media coverage—were racialized. What can we learn, for example, by comparing the media coverage and public and political response to mass shootings by men who are racially marked (Seung-Hui Cho) and those who are not (Adam Lanza) (Balance, 2008; Brandzel & Desai, 2008; Chong, 2008; Song, 2008)? How do race, class, nationality, and language status—and constructions of masculinity—also shape potential explanations for these acts of mass murder and suicide (Kalish & Kimmel, 2010)? What can we learn by studying and by living through these events?
  I am left, at the moment, with two foregrounded and unresolved questions that I wish to raise here: ← 58 | 59 →
  (1) How do we, as researchers and teachers, navigate the simultaneous need to address intersections of race/ethnicity and gender (and others along the lines of sexual orientation, class, age, dis/ability, and so forth) at the same time that we craft coherent narratives for publications like this and put into practice specific pedagogical interventions?
  (2) How do we, as researchers, teachers, and, perhaps most importantly, members of specific communities, more effectively and humanely grapple with constructions of racialized and classed masculinity that are oppressive both to those inhabiting the constructions (whether willingly, unwillingly, or, as in Jordan’s case, both/and as an act of student resistance—what Herbert Kohl calls “willed not-learning”) and to the experiences of those interacting with (too often) violent masculinities (or at least the projections and attributions of violent masculinities)? That is, how do we attend simultaneously to the risks, safety, oppressions of, and justices for all?
Joe and Letitia: Thank you for pushing us with your important question about racialized and classed masculinities. It seems to us that Jordan’s identity as an “angry and violent black male” was partly (if not largely) constructed for him by school personnel who were ready to pounce at the first sign of transgression. This is not to say that he and others should not be held accountable for their behavior. We would simply advocate for a discipline system that responds reasonably and thoughtfully to the particular student, rather than a zero-tolerance system that seeks to push students away as quickly as possible.
  Schools need to be safe spaces for all students. Nan Stein’s (1995) work on gendered violence in schools illustrates a significant problem with sexual harassment that appears to have its roots in teasing and bullying. The most disturbing aspect of Stein’s work (from our perspective) is the number of incidents of blatant harassment that occur in front of teachers or other school personnel who choose to do nothing. This kind of inaction communicates to everyone (the victim, the perpetrator, and onlookers) that schools don’t really care how students treat one another—a horrible message. We believe that schools and teachers must respond strongly when students mistreat one another (but again, we would advocate for individual and contextualized responses rather than zero tolerance). Disciplinary responses carry much more weight when they come from adults who have ← 59 | 60 → established meaningful relationships with the students involved. We see this kind of relationship building as the key to creating safe, empowering, and humanizing communities of learning. With Stein, we also see an important need to address these issues in our school curricula. We should be practicing and teaching about social justice, effective intercultural communication, and conflict resolution in our classrooms.
  Like you, Jane, we have found that the social consequences of race, class, and gender are often dismissed or overlooked in favor of easier explanations (in our case, the family is to blame; in your case, biology is to blame). Your chapter reminds us that it is critical to teach our students how to resist biological explanations for social inequities and “bad” behavior (the problematic claim that “if it’s in our genes, we can’t escape it”). Too often, such explanations are used to dismiss important sociocultural and economic factors. In our own work, we hope to resist the commonly held view that black families and black youth “just don’t care.” Instead, we hope to show that kids of color are often taught in school and by the school that they do not belong.
  While we fully support the critique of culturally constructed metaphors that reflect gender bias and/or justify racism within a scientific discourse, we have some concern about undermining science as a legitimate discourse. Put bluntly, there are critiques of science that scare us: climate change does not exist; homosexuality is not natural; evolution is “only one perspective” on how the world came to be. How can we meaningfully critique problematic constructions in science without undermining what science does offer? And how might we do this as social justice educators in a way that scientists can hear? We’d be interested in your perspective on these questions.
Jane: Letitia and Joe, these are fantastic questions that have become even more relevant since the first edition of this book was published. Today it seems “radical” to argue that scientific facts be taken seriously. Bruno Latour (2003), a leading Science & Technology Studies (STS) scholar, has argued that critiques of science and objectivity (research and curricula that teach that “there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always the prisoner of language, that we always speak from one standpoint, and so on”) may no longer be useful. STS, according to Latour, once sought to “emancipate the public from a prematurely naturalized objectified fact” and “an excessive ← 60 | 61 → confidence in ideological arguments posturing as matters of fact.” However, now that the real danger arises from an “excessive distrust of good matters of fact disguised as bad ideological biases,” the primary project of STS must shift to “reveal the real objective and incontrovertible facts hidden behind the illusion of prejudices.”
  For many, it is in regard to creation science/intelligent design and in debates about sexuality that being taught to trust science and think biologically now looks “progressive” not “oppressive.” Does this mean that the concerns I have raised and the strategies I have proposed are mute? Will incorporating frameworks from Science & Technology Studies into our classrooms lead to relativism rather than resistance? Or is it necessary to develop a third position—one that rejects scientific fundamentalism at the same time that it rejects religious fundamentalism?
  The relationship between sexuality and genetics is one that I have addressed previously (Lehr, 2007b), and I recognize its continued importance. In my chapter in Pinar and Rodriguez’s (2007) Queering Straight Teachers: Discourse and Identity in Education, I opened the essay by writing:
  Within today’s conservative socio-political context, the idea that scientific knowledge can be used as a tool for social justice is compelling due to the link made between science and truth. Thus, employing scientific knowledge as a tool for social justice works to “speak truth to power,” establishing credibility for social justice efforts by bypassing the need to establish the authority of certain moral or political claims over others. Instead, these moral or political claims become “objectified” and thus less “objectionable” within public and private spheres…. Within an often hostile and increasingly violent environment, the possibility of enrolling one of the most dominant forms of knowledge within our culture—science—to justify demands for equality…is tempting, and at least initially appears to be a “win-win situation”…. This use of scientific knowledge works as a strategic way to challenge religious fundamentalism, both within our classrooms and the larger world, and to resist legislative efforts aimed at further criminalizing homosexuality.
  However, as I argue in that chapter, certain dangers exist when we employ scientific knowledge to authorize our social justice work, particularly around issues of sexuality. As social justice educators, it is never enough to ask ← 61 | 62 → what we gain through employing scientific knowledge as a tool for social justice, but we must also ask what we risk and what we lose. In the case of the relationship between sexuality and genetics, employing a “scientific fundamentalist” argument to combat religious fundamentalism is risky for multiple reasons. For example, we must recognize that even if we are successful in making the case that sexual orientation is genetic, this is a place of perceived rather than actual safety. Jennifer Terry (1999) cautions that, regardless of scientists’ “attempts to control the implications of their research, there is a growing popular trend regarding biological evidence for things like homosexuality as a possible means for targeting ‘carriers’ and removing them from the gene pool” (p. 396). By participating in and, in fact, emphasizing a discourse of genetic difference, GLBTQ activists and allies may be strengthening public opinions that condemn homosexuality and the wish to root out the “disease” from our population—pathologizing or “abnormalizing” rather than “normalizing” sexual orientation variation through our reliance on scientific knowledge.
  I would like to learn and think more about the ways in which scientific knowledge “works” in the context of the school-to-prison pipeline.
Linda: Letitia and Joe, your discussion of the school-to-prison pipeline is an excruciating reminder that institutionalized racism and discrimination takes numerous forms. In my early teaching years, school policies pushed children who learned differently or were from minority cultures or lower-income families into inferior academic tracks, insuring a less adequate education and unequal access to higher education. Now, the school-to-prison pipeline feeds what has become a booming American industry. Those same students are getting suspended and dropping out at alarmingly high rates, thus becoming fodder for the voracious appetite of the prison industrial complex. The zero-tolerance discourse, which ties closely to “three strikes and you’re out,” continues to punish the most vulnerable of our youngsters and leave behind those who need help most.
  Strangely, I hear the echoes of my own teacher-candidates’ frustrations in the voices of Philip and Jordan. How can they meet the conflicting demands of school administrators? What is the place of diverse learners in today’s schools? In addition, how can an individual address so many competing demands simultaneously? Trying to ← 62 | 63 → fit into a broken system that isn’t working hardly makes sense, but beginning locally to effect change can feel unsatisfying to young idealists who hope to change the world. My teacher-candidates ask how they can possibly meet the needs of 150 adolescents daily, and how will the most at-risk students affect their ability to keep a job? These stark, cold questions are the reality of first-generation college attendees whose parents are counting on them to “succeed.” At a time when families, teachers, law enforcement personnel, politicians, and teacher-educators need to work together, we are having trouble not only finding a solution to problems, but agreeing on what the real problems are. I am reminded by your chapter that change is far more difficult than I thought it would be when I began teaching. Rainer Maria Rilke’s words about the importance of “living the questions” mean more to me each year.
Joe and Letitia: Linda, you bring up a really important point about the booming business of the prison industrial complex. Like our military complex, the prison system produces huge amounts of money for big business, and it relies on mass incarceration to do so. In other words, it relies on students like Jordan and Philip being sucked into (or is that fed into?) the prison pipeline. We also fully sympathize with your teacher-candidates feeling overwhelmed and even paralyzed by the sheer number of students they are expected to “manage.” As you suggest, our schools begin to feel like factories. Hundreds of student-widgets pass by teachers each day. “Broken” widgets are rerouted. If they can’t be “fixed” efficiently, they are tossed onto the scrap heap. Getting good at this kind of classroom management may actually serve to dehumanize students and teachers. Somehow, we need to help our teacher-candidates survive within the school system as it exists, while also resisting its dehumanizing features. The imagery of machines and factories has an interesting effect here, and we suspect that Jane would critique it as a really problematic metaphor for our schools (though useful from a business perspective). Two questions come to mind: What kind of metaphor for schooling would most empower and humanize our teachers and students? What further actions do we need to take as university educators to embolden our P–12 colleagues working “on the ground”?
Jane: Joe and Letitia, I do appreciate those questions. Alongside Linda’s chapter, I am also pushed to consider how the ways in which students (and teachers) are trained to literally ← 63 | 64 → “write science” plays an important role in the construction of specific forms of science literacy and citizenship. By disciplining their thoughts and bodies in the production of “objectivity,” “rationality,” and, indeed, laboratory reports, science students are trained to “practice citizenship” in a way that limits the types of knowledge that can count—or even become visible—in decision-making processes and scientific practices in an a priori manner. In effect, this interaction with “official discourses” produces students who are designed to disengage from civic and professional arenas as their voices are “written out” of these contexts.
Linda: Jane, your chapter, alongside my own, certainly focuses on the question of how we go about challenging oppressive dominant discourses. While you concentrate on those legitimated by science and I center on writing, your piece pushed me to consider that educators across the curriculum concerned about social justice issues face the same hurdles. While the privilege of formal academic and science discourses goes almost unchallenged, there have been other social/educational discourses that, disturbingly, have been met with blind acceptance. It was in my lifetime that children were universally excluded in mainstream facilities because of the color of their skin or the nature of their dis/ability. When Len (my case study) talks about enjoying writing when he can tell the story of his life and what is important in it, he is calling out for recognition of the importance and significance of a story that does not mesh with traditional success tales or bootstraps mythology. Expressivists have long touted the importance of individual voices, but their call is being silenced in the so-called standards movement. Whose standards are unquestioningly privileged and why?
  All of these chapters also remind me how difficult it can be for us as educators to challenge what many have come to believe are the best practices of our educational system. The nature of power is to hold on to that power. “Throw away” students, those we decided were unskilled, inept, cognitively delayed, or the wrong color or class, among other things, have always been “losers” in a system that judges, categorizes, and belittles. Well-meaning as we may be, we are a part of the gate-keeping system; so fostering as well as enacting a more critical consciousness remains a daily challenge. The expressivists of the 1960s—those who called out for freedom of expression as well as appreciation and acceptance of individual voices—were criticized as naive and faulted for ← 64 | 65 → encouraging substandard work. Inroads have been made and continue to be made, however. For example, the idea of including real teacher conversations in an academic book is an example of a hybrid text, one that mixes the traditional research voice with the more personal. It may be trite to say that change comes slowly, but the hardest lesson for this impatient person to remember is that teaching for social justice is an organic and dynamic process rather than a fait accompli.


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XIV, 332
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2014 (February)
Antiautoritäre Erziehung Soziale Gerechtigkeit Social justice Elementary educator Racism Classism Sexism transformation oppression research methodology youth Anti-oppressive education Heterosexism

Biographical notes

Kevin K. Kumashiro (Volume editor) Bic Ngo (Volume editor)

Bic Ngo is an Associate Professor of Culture and Teaching in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Minnesota. She received her PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the author of Unresolved Identities: Discourse, Ambivalence and Urban Immigrant Identities (SUNY) and the recent recipient of the Scholars Award from the William T. Grant Foundation and the Early Career Award from the Committee on Scholars of Color in Education, American Education Research Association. Kevin Kumashiro is dean of the School of Education at the University of San Francisco. He received his PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He was formerly professor of Asian American Studies and chair of the Department of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he also served as primary investigator and director of a $4 million U.S. Department of Education grant-funded initiative to support Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and English-language learners in higher education. He is the award-winning author or editor of nine books on education and social justice, including «Bad Teacher!: How Blaming Teachers Distorts the Bigger Picture.» He is the founding director of the Center for Anti-Oppressive Education, and the president of the National Association for Multicultural Education.


Title: Six Lenses for Anti-Oppressive Education