Disrupting the Disruptors: Reimagining Policy Advocacy in a Post-Truth Era

On October 29, 2020, I had an enormous privilege to give a keynote address to the Pennsylvania Association of Teacher Educators (PAC-TE). In this talk, I discussed how intermediary organizations and advocacy groups have engaged in promoting “science of reading” reforms across the nation. I offer this analysis as an invitation for teacher educators and educational researchers to consider how they could respond to the policy advocacy of external groups in order to reclaim the credibility and authority of the field.

I would love to hear your thoughts, questions, or suggestions, as I continue wrestling with these ideas.

Disrupting the Disruptors: Reimagining Policy Advocacy in a Post-Truth Era

Socialization and Racial Justice

Talking about racial justice cannot happen without taking account of whiteness and white privilege. Naming whiteness, describing how it operates in people’s lives, and examining how its benefits shape perceptions of the world is difficult work. It needs to start with what Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz calls “archaeology of the self” – a deep analysis of personal experiences, upbringing, and early encounters with difference. This presentation guides participants through a self-reflection on how socialization forces affected their perceptions of difference and invites them to explore how naming those influences opens opportunities for creating change.

The University and the Global Pandemic: In the Eye of the Storm

This week marks the beginning of a new semester in many colleges and universities across the U.S. But unlike other semesters when the first week of classes evoked a sense of joyful anxiety and anticipation, this week has been filled with dread and a sense of a looming disaster. While some colleges and universities announced that they are moving online and some even offered tuition reduction, others moved straight ahead with their plans to reopen and bring students back to campus for in-person classes. With cases spiking in many parts of the country, with the total count of infections rising to 5.5 million and the official death toll exceedign 170 thousand, with more information emerging about the detrimental effects of this disease, many are returning to campuses amidst all the warning signs that poorly ventilated buildings and the system of shuffling bodies around campus is a sure road to worsening this epidemiological disaster.

Why would universities and colleges plunge straight ahead into the mess called “reopening” and “campus reentry?

No one is surprised by the answer – money. Students have to bring in tuition dollars and those tuition dollars have to keep the university business afloat.

But universities have done more than just move ahead with in-person classes to get the tuition dollars. A few schools around the country have asked students to sign COVID waivers and blocked students’ ability to register for classes or access healthcare if they refused to sign the waiver. Pause for a second. Institutions are asking students to sign waivers that they acknowledge that COVID is a deadly disease but they would not hold the university liable if they contract it.

Many institutions have also pushed faculty in high-risk categories or those caring for family members in high-risk categories to accept in-person instruction or run the risk being fired. In some cases, pleas for understanding that contracting this virus would result in an inevitable death of a child with a heart condition rose to the level of national attention and resulted in accommodations. In many cases, however, this violent refusal to provide accommodations in the context of a global disaster went on, leaving families struggling to figure out how to choose between financial and physical survival.

Universities have invested in “safe return” packets created by private firms, with fancy logos and clever decals directing traffic around hallways that in some cases are barely four feet wide. Faculty and staff received safety packets with face shields and a small bottle of sanitizer. They might as well a body bag to dispose of the corpse when the body in the classroom has run its course and succumbed to the disease. Faculty have been asked to identify suitable replacements who would take over their courses when they become sick or die. Some universities have created promotional videos that include images of large lecture theaters for over a hundred people but barely hold twenty students enthralled by their professor’s lecture. Websites are now full of pictures of people interacting with each other that would not have been considered safe for more than 15 minutes even in masks. But why? Why is it that we have not learned that at the time of crisis selling a fake dream is the worst kind of lie? That promising “a college experience” with a death waiver is basically criminal? That forcing faculty to make choices between an unsafe return to work or being force to take a leave of absence or be altogether fired is beyond the pale?

In some cases, university administrators are explicit that they want faculty to offer in-person instruction because “students want a real college experience.” This position reflects what has become common sense over the last two decades – students are customers and as the U.S. consumerist culture goes, the customer is always right.

Here is the clash. The conflict. The deadly collision if you will. What if the customer might not be right?

We live in the midst of a massive political crisis where disinformation about this pandemic has reached epic proportions. From the state level all the way to the national level, we have been observing efforts to suppress the data and misinform the public about the extent of the crisis, its drastic proportions, and its wildfire spread. Conspiracy theories and politicization of the pandemic have turned even basic safety precautions, such as masks, into matters of life or death.

In this situation, even a customer who may wish to be fully informed has no way of having all the information necessary to make an informed decision. The jury is still out whether customers make right choices even if they possess necessary facts. The crowds congregating on campuses in complete disregard of basic safety rules like wearing masks and staying six feet apart suggest that this might not be the case.

That is not all of the issue though.

What has been the most tragic for me to watch is how the university has completely betrayed its mission by following the decision to open its campuses.

Historically, the university has been the site of enlightenment, the site where expert knowledge was created, valued, and curated. The mission of the university has been to bring knowledge to the community and to serve the state in improving the wellbeing of its citizens. I admit that it has not always been benevolent – colonizing at times, devastating at others. But the major function of producing knowledge and valuing expertise has been at the core of what universities did. Opening campuses, bringing large groups of students together, giving freedom to socialize at fraternity or sorority parties, bars, or night clubs goes counter to all scientific evidence and guidance we have obtained so far.

There is also something else. Universities sought to model the character traits to be pursued – curiosity, integrity, and hard work. Higher education is not built on the ideals of those who wanted to make a quick buck. It was built on the ideals of becoming a better person through encounter with expert knowledge and through willingness to grapple with complex issues without looking for dishonest short-cuts. Promising a “real college experience” in the midst of a global pandemic, especially in states where cases have been rising since the beginning of summer at exponential rates, is at best dishonest, at worst morally reprehensible.

So, here we are – in the middle of a global pandemic, in midst of a grave political crisis, in the mire mess of disinformation on every imaginable level. And what choice do universities leaders or boards that govern them make? To sacrifice lives – of students, staff, and faculty – to protect the bottom line. To go counter to expert knowledge, to go counter to best available scientific evidence, and to go counter to basic ethical and moral imperatives of modeling integrity, serving communities, and saving lives. All for the sake of profit.

Humanities scholars have long raised concerns about the way universities have become businesses. Profit over people. Contingent faculty as disposable labor. Students as customers rather than learners. Dictatorial control over professors’ speech if they express unpopular opinions. There have been warning signs that this turn from the function of enlightenment towards the function of profit-making would lead to a disaster. This is neither a new crisis nor a new revelation. But like in every other area of American life, COVID19 opened these sores anew and revealed the rot inside. We knew or suspected it was there. We just have not really done much about it. 

What could have been done differently?

Universities have done a great job supporting researchers looking for biomedical solutions or engineering innovations that could address equipment shortages. But there could have been a more concerted effort to educate students and their families about the dangers of the disease and to take action towards elevating considerations of public good over individual desires. Instead of pandering to individual students’ fantasies of sorority rush parties, fraternity beer bashes, fall football tailgating, afternoon sun at the quad, and rock climbing at the university gym – because admit it, that’s what “true colleges experience” has become – universities could have cultivated spaces for the conversation about the common good, about what is best for the society at large, and about the course of action that would help us get through this crisis as a civilization. Our communities needed these conversations, not just our students.

Instead of finding elaborate ways to push faculty towards in-person instruction, universities could have engaged in a radical experiment of reimagining education. Why were we not using this time to create new possibilities of what university learning could entail? Why were we not asking ourselves questions about alternative ways of engaging with each other? Why were we not pursuing alternative spaces for learning collectively? We all knew face-to-face contact would facilitate the spread of the disease. We could have looked for new approaches and innovative teaching that would move towards destandardization, towards disrupting the consumerist culture, and towards redesigning our relationships with each other, with ideas, with expert knowledge. All of a sudden, the world constrained by the fear of infections became more interconnected than ever with art galleries, concert halls, and museums offering virtual tours, webinars, and lectures. So many opportunities that could have been harnessed in creative ways to produce something new were wasted. Instead universities wasted already limited resources on return packets that create only an illusion of safety.

Finally, this could have been the time for the professoriate to set aside individual differences and consider how we could stand in solidarity with suffering communities, with underappreciated educators in schools, and with workers who were losing their jobs as unemployment rates grew.  Academia’s culture of “divide and conquer” kept most folks focused on individual recognition, individual attainment, individual rewards, and individual promotion. In the end, very few have attempted to take on this crisis collectively. Historical crises have shown that when “I” reigns supreme, we all become sheep prepared for slaughter. Instead of a national strike – in solidarity and support for all those who are losing their jobs, who are facing the threat of becoming infected and dying, and who are terrified about their future – the professoriate went ahead focusing on individual little problems, courses, and papers. This is a dangerous path towards extinction.

We need change and action. In the long run, we need to strive for a more ethical and moral engagement with the world, with our students, and with each other. But in the short run, we need collective resistance. What’s ahead is not just the impending doom of inevitable outbreaks, but also the public outcry about university’s betrayal of its trust. We cannot be and should not be complicit in this self-destruction.

Global Education Resources

During 2019-2020 academic year, I was a Global Teacher Education Fellow with the Longview Foundation.

This fellowship was a part of my journey of learning about global education and decolonization of teacher education.

During my fellowship year, I began assembling resources that I have found useful and insightful for thinking about ways in which teacher education can be transformed to make space for critical explorations of the world and the U.S. position in it. If you have suggestions about what should be added to this list, please, share!

Google Doc with Global Education Resources

As a part of my fellowship, I revised a course on diversity that I teach. Below is the video of my presentation describing the frameworks I used and the changes I made.

Lessons from the Pandemic

I did not know that wild violets grow in Alabama fields. Turns out they do, right in my neighborhood. I did not know that in the back of my yard grows a dogwood tree with tender blossoms, flowers that serve as a symbol of rebirth and revival. Granted I have not been living in this house long, but the three years of never-ending busy-ness, endless to-do lists, deadlines always looming larger than life, worries about the future, parenting obligations, and health issues choked out my ability to see life around me. Now, I stop to pay attention even if for a brief moment to marvel at the beauty that has been so elusive before.

This pandemic taught me many lessons already. For one, it has cracked open the fragility of human life. In the West, but particularly in the U.S., there is an implicit assumption of invincibility. And it is contagious. “Best healthcare system in the world!” “We will win this war!” “We will not let this enemy prevail!” It is so easy to believe that tragedy and horror will pass by. But friends from New York write about the constant sound of howling ambulances; news stories describe the stench from unrefrigerated trucks full of decomposing bodies; nurses and doctors share stories of trauma and desperation from seeing dozens of patients die daily. Assumptions of invincibility are pretentious and dangerous. They take us down a much darker path.

That is the major lesson of the pandemic so far – “unforeseeable circumstances” and “unchartered waters” bring out the best in some people and the worst in others. Ultimately, these events become a true mirror of who we are as a society. Or rather, what we have become. Years of ragged individualism and aggressive propagation of libertarian ideas left us stranded on the island on which homo hominin lupus est – “a man is a wolf to another man.” The widespread disregard for the vulnerable, for the community, for the well-being of others is astonishing. Of all the tragic twists and turns that I could anticipate, the scale of the protests against shelter-in-place policies and the aggressiveness against basic means of protecting public health, such as masks, have been devastating to observe. I have been wrestling with the question of how a society gets to this place.

A part of the crisis is a broken economic system that puts profits over the well-being of people. The meritocratic narrative of rewards only for “hard work” supported the decimation of safety nets. With incomes lost, millions of Americans have nothing to fall back on in the time of crisis. When decisions were being made, they either actively supported or silently observed how social protections were eliminated believing that “those people” should work harder to earn their piece of the pie. Now, instead of realizing that they themselves were shortchanged by this ideology, they demand a return “to normal,” with a complete disregard for the loss of life this will incur. It does not help that in some states, there have been clear connections between groups that are organizing the protests and the billionaire class. A classic case from old philosophical texts – those with limited economic resources are working against their own interests as individuals or members of the working class to serve the needs and interests of their masters.

But there are also deeper issues at hand. Much of the American society has learned to live for pleasure – instant gratification to consumerist desires. Isolation cuts off opportunities to engage in rampant consumerism of goods, services, images, and pleasures. Being alone reveals the holes in one’s humanity created both by consumerism and fast-paced lives in pursuit of profit or sustenance. The space for leisure to cultivate hobbies that allow people to create, produce, observe, marvel, or contemplate has been erased by the rat race of non-stop running between work, meetings, activities, get-togethers, shopping, TV shows, and errands. As a cultural outsider, I am continually amazed at how consumerism is even taught to toddlers, both through garages full of trinkets and through busy schedules of soccer games, swimming lessons, and play-dates. When do they ever get to be children, I wonder. To just be.

In a recent interview, Chris Hedges – a Pulitzer-winning journalist and writer – described the current social crisis as a result of long-standing policies and practices, which in the long run have produced a society of spectators. He makes a point in his other works that 24-hour entertainment through every imaginable medium – streaming, TVs, ads, podcasts, phone apps, sporting events, and social media – cultivates a lack of critical thinking. On some level, this point resonated with me because I have spent a lot of my time thinking about schools and educational institutions producing spectators both in the U.S. and in other countries. I wrote extensively that certain educational goals run the danger of producing masses that do not question and do not engage in a social critique. Spectators.

Applied to the current crisis, however, this perspective helped it all make sense – spectators come together to derive pleasure from an act of entertainment. They are present to get their emotional high – not to be somebody, not to act decisively, not to make a difference, not to show care for the well-being of others, but to see and be seen. Their goal is to be satisfied by the show. A spectator has no moral or ethical obligation to a spectator right next to him or her. As Guy Debord – a late French philosopher  – explained it, all spectators are united  through a divided, fragmented, and disconnected act of being connected to a spectacle. We might all tune in to watch the spectacle of daily coronavirus briefings from the White House but that does not makes us connected or united to each other. We remain separated by our social classes, cultural groups, values, and beliefs. And after seeing the staggering numbers of infections and deaths, we remain on different social planes about our concerns for our neighbors and our community. Some will care, many others will not. And since the show is getting more and more dissatisfying, the edginess will grow and the acts of violence will increase. Homo hominem lupus est.

Spectators are also not expected to question the show. Theater goers repeat lines from the plays they enjoyed. They do not test them for truthfulness, internal logic, or factual support. Remember Hamilton – I am not throwing away my shot? What a catchy line to repeat and live by. In the same way, this pandemic has been a breeding ground for dangerous ideas that fly in the face of reason but spectators pick them up, write them on poster boards, and march into the streets to chant them back. In the era of widespread misinformation, catchy slogans become lethal weapons.

Some empires decline gradually, some fall apart abruptly. I was born in the Soviet Union – an empire that fell when no one expected it to fall. And I say to you, my friends, welcome to the end of the empire. We are about to witness something really spectacular, but not in an entertaining kind of way.

If practiced right, quarantine has given us the best gift we could ever ask for as a society – solitude (I know it might not feel that way when you are locked up with relatives and children, but still). Solitude is an amazing opportunity for introspection. For centuries, people across the world sought solitude to gain wisdom. Even though neither solitude, nor wisdom, is held up in much regard in this society, quarantine lessons suggest that we need to rethink our lives and our priorities. And perhaps that, which was not highly regarded before, could be considered as an opportunity to reimagine the world and build a better society. I don’t think the fall of the empire can be averted, but at least a better vision for us as a people and as a society can be created for those who will emerge from the rubble.

Dogwood flower

Many Faces of Policy Advocacy: Reclaiming Teacher Educators’ Voice, Knowledge, and Authority in the Struggle for Equity and Justice

On February 18, 2020, I had the privilege of giving a keynote address at the Association of Teacher Educators Annual Meeting in Atlantic City, NJ.

In my address, I focused on intermediary organizations’ activities in shaping teacher education policies and ways in which teacher educators can use some of reformers’ strategies in their policy advocacy. The full text of the address and the presentation slides are available here.