Teachers Act Up!

Thoughts on Teaching, Language, and Social Change from Melisa "Misha" Cahnmann-Taylor

White Flight Justification Songs

I am so sick of White People.  I am also sick of Black people.  I am sick of Jewish people, Hispanics, Mexicans, the Irish.  I am not yet sick of Norwegian people, but I might as well be. I am sick of tribalism, the male and female kind, even the Trans kind.  And while I am sick of it, I also [ironically?] hunger for it.  I look for the me-group with the yoga mats and the quinoa, the running groups and the ‘in town’ groups; the “I read” groups and the “I write groups;” the I-have-children-in-public-school groups.

So what I am sick of is the language of tribalism, the coded ways we raise up our “in groups” and demoralize our out groups.  We use coded terms, we obfuscate and play language games.  We call one group “recipients of government hand outs” and another group (e.g. farmers) as recipients of “government assistance” for example.   One school is “good” and the other is “bad.” Can we stop the code? My head is spinning.

I’m sick of it.  I understand survivalism and I understand why we gang up on each other. This is what humans have always done and continue to do.  And we teach tribalism to our children, making educational decisions that are “best” for them, but are just replays of the same ole tribal songs to maintain unfair status quo.  We can shrug our shoulders or we can try to name the crazy. In the spirit of public schools as one of the few places with potential to bring diverse tribes together in the U.S., I wrote this poem, trying to find dizzy language through a new song.  We all want “good” schools and what is “best” for our children, but at what cost? Whose? To what end?


moreover bigger or oversizer, formerly earnest earner,
under arrest him ate him, e-race him, tear-er asunder commuter,
all burrs and tsk-tsk-ers, ergonomic errors in words, perverse
universes of his-es and hers-es, funeral service’s hesitant
compute or pardon me sir, er, murmurs preceding er, Mister?
used in place of a name we name or rename, a game of er not:
poorer, browner, blacker marker of either/or er? burned
by your-er voracious more-ers, not veracous turners
to universes of verses to aver, to declare spring, rooting
for truths, veracity digger to ver, Spanish infinitive “to see”
as in see, er, what I mean?


Poem published in Tayo Magazine here: http://www.tayoliterarymag.com/melisa-misha-cahnmanntaylor

What can we do to advocate for tribes of difference, for unity in diversity? We can support public education.  Here’s a link to actionable ideas including the very simple act of rating your child’s public school at https://www.greatschools.org/.

We can volunteer and make that school a better place.  We can dispel the myths that “good” isn’t also code for class and race privilege, that we can change what we mean by goodness.  We can talk to our neighbors, our families, our friends.  We can change the song.


Actionable ideas to support Public Education: https://fmps.org/engaging-community-partners-to-support-our-schools-2/

What University Professors Really Do

Much of the public perceives the “cushy” life of the University Professor.  My fingers ache from the keyboard and it’s only 10:34am (I’ve learned to type really fast to get more done, more quickly).  I am thinking about all the things I’m doing while I am “not teaching” and thought I’d share a little list with the great public who helps fund our public higher education system (which, yes, still costs each student too much money in the U.S.).  While I wish we were in a national system that helped pay for public education and I agree that it costs too much, I also want our paying customers to know that professors at public universities are doing a lot of work to earn our reasonable, state-provided salaries.  What work  you might ask?  Let me take a few quick minutes to type out a brief list of things I’ve been doing in my summer time “off” aside from teaching summer school:

  1. Tenure letters.  These accumulate over the summer.  Other faculty who are going up for review at their institutions require faculty of “peer and aspirant” institutions to review their cases. This requires reading several articles, books, c.v.s and then putting our assessments into carefully written language then sending shortened versions of our c.vs and signed hard and electronic copies of the letters.  This is unpaid and invisible work.
  2. Reviewing articles submitted to journals.  Like the above, but you review (for free) an article written by a peer writer to determine if it merits publication and to give critique on numerous aspects of the article’s qualities.  This is unpaid and invisible work.
  3. Reviewing grant proposals.  Like the above but sometimes these reviews require trips to DC or other locations to review proposals en masse and discuss in order to arrive at the winners.  This is often unpaid, at times very modestly paid, and often invisible work–though sometimes it can come with a turkey club sandwich and chips.
  4. Reviewing student work: comprehensive exams, dissertation prospectuses, dissertations, and other writing.  Faculty chair and are members of numerous commmittees for doctoral students who need similar review of their work.  Faculty prepare by helping to write questions for the students to answer; reviewing and editing the answers; authoring new questions for students to answer; helping to craft and shape a student’s ideas for their own work; sometimes co-authoring and other forms of mentorship.  Due to this being in a wide range of “instructional duties” this is often invisible work but it also can take the most and most important time. This is how we maintain and grow fields of knowledge.
  5. Writing letters for students.  Students who have (or maybe have not) taken your classes will later ask you to recommend them for jobs, educational opportunities, awards, etc.  And you will write them letters of recommendation that have various deadlines, nuanced content requirements, varied ways to send the letters, some online forms of varying lengths.  This is unpaid and invisible work.
  6. Meetings.  Oh yes–meetings about things that help the university to run such as serving on the University Arts Council or serving on Promotion and Tenure Committees that help recognize colleagues as they pass through (or do not) review processes; Leadership and awards committees and many other duties that require groups to sit together; set agendas; and hopefully plan for actions to be taken outside of the meeting.  More often, these are meetings to talk about and plan other meetings.  This is unpaid and invisible work.
  7. Review of research and ongoing professional upkeep.  To remain current and active as a scholar one must continue to maintain one’s own time to read and review new articles, new online resources, new books, new new new.  There’s always a new idea or new project or new publication.  Faculty spend a lot of time invested in staying current and this is why we appear to be paid for our “free time” but this is often invisible. This time becomes more visible when it results in the end products such as grants or publications.  The former is currently much more favorable to the latter.
  8. Review of grant opportunities and publication invitations–like #7, this work becomes visible when it results in a successful end product like an awarded grant or high visibility publication.
  9. Collaborations, networking with other scholars in your field–hard to explain but saying yes to various social and professional opportunities that may require a lot of personal time is also an important part of a process that can result in the visible products of grants and publications.
  10. Giving back to my community by planning with local libraries, educational leaders, and poets to offer my services to the city that I call home.  This resulted in a public poetry reading series and at other times includes guest speaking engagements in various settings related to my work as a professor and poet.  These are most often unpaid and may have some visibility with communities about which I care.


I can go on and on but I am getting anxious by all there is to do. I just finished two tenure reviews and am getting started on one of two students’ comprehensive exam question reviews.  100s of pages to read and review for meetings next week for “defenses” as well as my own classes for which to plan 15 weeks of agendas ahead of time so we all know where we’re headed, when and what to read and do for a grade.  I just submitted several poems and articles for publication and hoping some of these will result in visible products.  I just found a grant deadline I missed and worry I need to be more vigilant with my ‘free time’ to seek more opportunities.

Most professors work hard.  We don’t lift and carry and we seldom have absolute 8-5pm schedules.  But many of us never feel like we end our day and you may be surprised by how early we rise, answering emails at the crack of dawn.

Being a professor is a wonderful job.  This profession offers a unique life of the mind with greater flexibility in our schedules than many have.  But it’s not a cushy life.  It’s not ‘just’ about teaching our weekly 3 hour classses or 45 contact hours each semester.  As much as you can give to your program, department, unit or university, this will be gladly received and never enough.  It takes a great big team of hard working people to make universities run.  Universities and the people who work there can seem really expensive, but it’s important to understand the very different roles we each play in helping this beautiful system to activate the critical and reflexive thinkers of our time.  Universities help us better understand our human and non-human world–the problems, solutions, and processes by which we get living done.  We strive for a public voice, one that can provide more nuance and empirically warranted assertions that help us answer “how” and “why.” Blogs are a great stress relief and can make our private, specialized work a bit more public.

And now, back to work….!

Oh putting together manuscript #2…

How many of you, my friends, know how hard it is to land a publisher for poetry book #1? How lucky I felt when Whitepoint Press said yes in 2016 to “Imperfect Tense”–the imperfect version of a manuscript I had been revising for 10 years.

How many of you know that unless you are in the “Blessed” category of loyal and flush small or large presses, that its perhaps DOUBLY hard to get your second book of poetry published.

*do you hear the violins…….

Well, I am up for the challenge. Poetry book #2.  For the most part, my lucky response is: I don’t care if this book, as it stands, gets published.  After all, my job doesn’t require or expect me to publish poetry. I don’t “need” it….and yet.

I put poems together in a book manuscript because I love it, because the poems are like my own bone structure and when the first batches found a spine and a cover, it was like giving birth to a part of myself.  I celebrated.  I had a first birthday.  Then a second.  Now a third.  But a book of poems ages very fast and the celebrations are generally only for the newly born.

For the last 2-3 years I have hatched new poems, more of them, more constantly, urgently–but I take out most of the adverbs (as my students know).  And now I have a new book of poems! And it seeks a publisher.  My first publisher is so small and not taking a look at anything until January.  I can wait.  But what if there’s another press to take a gander between now and then? What if my small press doesn’t want this new book? How does one find a new publisher? It’s worse than buying a car….

You look at (groan) contests.  You pay (double groan) fees of $20-50 per shot, so that a small underfunded press can afford to sort through 1000s of other manuscripts who want a chance at the one publication or three that press may do per year in the genre of poetry.

How many contests do you enter? Which ones? I try to know the press, to like or love the press, to find hope that they may produce a pretty book on good (enough) paper with a lovely cover design.  I try to find lower submission or contest fees.  I try to match my poems with the press vision or with presses who have published poets who I feel a kinship to or editors I might know.  I miss deadlines.  I prepare for rejection, rejection, rejection.  Thanks but no thanks. I steel myself against feeling personally declined.  I reason: there are just too many darn good poets in the world; it’s just not the right fit, the right time, the right trigger, the right title, the right order, the right craft, the right mood, the right the wrong the in between anxiety that the poems are not good. Not good? Not good enough?  Not enough.  Not yet.  Not here. Nahhhhhh.

Read them again. Re-read them.  Read them outloud.  Take out some poems, make some edits, write some new poems, reorganize.  Wonder: am I cutting the poems like a man cutting his own moustache until it’s woefully uneven or gone?

If you are a poet with a book, published or unpublished, then you know what I’m talking about.  Here goes nothing and everything. I hope it won’t take another 10 years…..

I’m all ears for your stories and sage advice!!!

Language Educators Learn from Artists

img_20180717_182946At the Lyndon House Galleries, the director talked about an exhibition of photography from a local musician.  She told our group that she doesn’t use the “emerging artist” term anymore because of its negative connotations–not good enough, not arrived.  She explained, “I say that the exhibits are for artists who are inventing or launching their artistic practice or re-investigating/re-vitalizing their careers.”

Now, I have absolutely loved Ofelia Garcia’s contribution to bilingualism and language studies, shifting very disparaging terms such as “Limited English Proficient” (LEP) toward “emerging bilinguals.”  It felt right–all of us can be emerging bilinguals anywhere on the continua.

But what might it be like to talk about “launching bilinguals” for all of us, touching each word like a new star in the orbits of our widening vocabulary skies? What might it be like to “invent our bilingual selves” through travel in other lexicons or to reinvent ourselves and revitalize the language we can access to communicate that much more of who we are?

I am so grateful to the artists who never stop playing with language and image, to help us see the same things different and to see new things we didn’t see before.  I am going to launch and invent myself this new lexicon and revitalize my understanding of what it means to speak, write, listen, read, and love in more than one language.img_20180717_182951

Jerusalem 2018, Here I Come with Poetry

As I read the news about Jerusalem this week, I am also preparing to give several talks first on the arts and inquiry at ICQI (University of Illinois); then in Jerusalem to various groups of educators interested in the arts and English language teaching.  I prepare to talk about the English language as an artful resource for communicating peace and humanity; for stretching outside of oneself into another language.  I prepare for these talks on the porch where a second mother bird has recycled the hanging plant nest for another set of eggs.  I can’t help but see metaphor.

Hatching one’s way out of nativeness to one language and culture into more than one, requires learners to break holes in the shells of one’s “home” way of thinking, being, and languaging.  A hard hook on one’s beak to peck at routinized thinking, to see outside of “the daily news” (Jerusalem Post? Haaretz? New York Times? Fox?)–leaving the nest of one’s own thinking is frightening.  You can learn a second, third, or fourth language and never peck your way into a new way of thinking –bilingualism doesn’t entail that kind of power.

“The press is always against us,” writes my Israeli friend.  My Kashmir and Jordanian and Palestinian friends might write the same thing.  Now more than ever we need new approaches to language, a kind of *trans-ness that goes well beyond the translation of verbs, nouns, or syntax.  Translanguaging is a kind of restructuring of the heart and mind, to be able to -no, to have no choice but to- see and live in the complexity of both/and; to separate oneself from facile, falsely divided categories of language (English, Arabic, Hebrew) or personhood (American, Palestinian, Israeli) or “banks” that are West or East, and see we’re always beyond the safety of our first nests.  Our survival may depend on leaving the old structures behind.  Yet those structures–such fragile beauty, such holy promise–they tie us to our definitions, our rituals for marking time, our tribal kinship, our leg up, our safe house.  Who am I to say step outside yourself when there may be an explosive? Who am I to stay stop your molotov cocktails and replace them with poetry?

I don’t dare touch these eggs.  I don’t want to contaminate them with my humanness.  But I would like to learn from them.  How to occupy a nest, only briefly.  Do what the body needs to do. Survive. Move on.




Plenary Presentations and Workshops: Jerusalem schedule

Dr. Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor, Professor

University of Georgia

Invitation from ETAI [English Teachers Association in Israel] & U.S. Embassy through the American Center Jerusalem.

Talk Titles & Descriptions ~ July 2-5

 July 2: Communicative Input, Creativity and Comedy in the Foreign Language Classroom. Talk with the Chief Inspector of Israel for English teachers

July 3: TESOL & The Arts: New Metaphors for Practice (Plenary, English Teachers Association of Israel [ETAI], membership 700)

July 4: Writing the “Not Me”: Drama and Poetry in Qualitative Inquiry in Education (Workshop presentation, ETAI

July 4: Panel on TESOL in Global Communication (ETAI)

July 5: What hurts about being a Semitic educator? What doesn’t hurt? Presentation for the Diplomacy Youth program & educators (Jerusalem Center & US Embassy)

 TALK A: morning with educators of younger learners

Lunch Engagement with Whole Community

TALK B: afternoon with educators of older learners


Visual Broadsides — Naomi Shihab Nye’s Poems

Another round of wonderful & visual interpretations of poetry! Spring 2018 we had hoped that Naomi Shihab Nye would visit us in Athens and prepared by reading her poems.  Her physical visit didn’t occur, but students in LLED 7710 Poetry for Creative Educators “visited” with Nye’s poetry by responding through an assignment called the “Visual Broadside.”  Departing from purely verbal interpretations, students made visual choices to display the aesthetic process of understanding one of Nye’s poems as it sits within the body of her work.  Please see this beautiful video Kathy Barrett made as well as visual broadsides by Megan Graham, Kuo Zhang, Ming Sun, Xinyi Li, Charlee Cain, Pamela Paradise, and Yupei Tang.

Ellsworth (2005) describes how successful pedagogical [and physical] encounters with art, media, and architecture can generate for the learner “sensations of being somewhere in between thinking and feeling, of being in motion through the space and time between knowing and not knowing, in the space and time of learning as a lived experience with an open, unforeseeable future” (p. 17). Through the visual broadside assignment, these emerging poets and educators become absorbed cognitively, somatically, and emotionally within the materiality of the poem as well as thinking about their own future practices as second language teachers. These experiences invite these educators to consider the kinds of artful language teachers they might become. Here are some quick snapshots of this recent work.  To view previous “visual broadsides”–type these two words into the wordpress search engine to see the wide variety of visual interpretations students’ have used in previous iterations of this assignment.

Ellsworth, E. A. (2005). Places of learning: Media, architecture and pedagogy. New York, NY: Routledge.

You can get poems from the news.

“It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”
― quotes from the famous American poet, William Carlos Williams

While one may not get the literal news from poetry, poets are often actively responding to the news around them through verse.  The pen, the keyboard, the performance microphone–these are some artists’ tools with which to navigate engagement in the public world. Sometimes the act of writing poetry can help one bear witness and bear the grief found in daily reports of the worst possible human behavior.  These are what I think about as I prepare a new poem this week alongside my students’ new poem drafts.  Responding to Theodore Roethke’s work as well as Larry Nassar’s abuse of young female athletes for decades, I use the poetry tools at my disposable to make artful sense of horrifying abuse and those who were complicit around him.


~after Roethke’s Dolor


I have known the dizzying rush of deep tissue

manipulations on my table; lean, muscular torsos,

young hips and barely breasts exposed, breathing

complaints of pain down sinewy calves through tiny

feet I lifted, like a god, to puckered cabin ceilings, teasing

ungloved fingers at ball and socket joints, measuring

downy beginnings with classic “thrust” techniques

to diagnose, reduce inflamation, prepare for the win.

And I’ve worn jackets in the team’s white satin, cock-

tails with coaches, university presidents, eager-to-please

parents begging for my time to poke and prod,

fill medal and trophy cases with gymnasts,

dancers, rowers, runners, swimmers, figure skaters.

Ghazal and wild language

Inspired by reading Agha Shahid Ali’s ghazals, Stephanie (Stephen) Burt’s essay on Ali, and Natasha Trethewey’s ghazal “Miscegenation,” I decided to try my own.  I invited students in my poetry class to also write a Ghazal, one that navigates any aspect of linguistic, racial, and cultural identity.

I must also add this ghazal-draft is inspired by an email I received last night from a young student from Puerto Rico who’d found and liked an old poem of mine, “What you are.”  She wrote, “honestly, you have no idea how much this means to me. There aren’t enough words in the dictionary to express my thankfulness.” And then she wanted to know: “hope you wouldn’t mind me asking but where are you from or your parents?”

“A place of universal exile,” I wrote back to her.  Latinidad is a perfect place for that, Latina or Jewish or otherwise.  Here’s my answer in a poem draft form.

Símon Manifesto

                                                  ~for Dayhath Marte-Herrera

A language you never learn in classrooms: Spanglish.

First and second language, “both/and” borders Spanglish.


Standard English, a blazer-dressed, distant uncle;

Tía Castellana, black laced aunt to Spanglish.


Puro amor tatooed on a gangster’s knuckles.

¿What recourse nos queda? Gloria asked in Spanglish.


El Paso, Los Cruces, La Brea, indelible

stains tar our place names in original Spanglish.


We’re creating languages of implied exile:

Ching, Hing-, and Kong- lish, Franglais, and, of course, Spanglish.


When certain consonants appear between vowels,

they’re left out (mojado/mojao), speaking Spanglish.


Díaz writes culocracy, governing culos,

a neologism coined in perfect Spanglish.


It defies collapse into single syllables,

but still it hurts boys and girls to malign Spanglish.


Oy vey, kinnehora, my grandmother grumbled.

Yinglish is my own variety of Spanglish.


Tranquila, Melisa, conjugating struggle’s

easy, si aprendes bien, lessons from Spanglish.


Translingual writing and Imperfect Tense (an interview)

What a lovely post to receive on MLK 2018.  This interview with one of my great anthropology heroes, Alma Gottlieb.  She asks me great questions about the links between ethnography and creative writing/poetry–here are my answers with some fun pictures





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