Teachers Act Up!

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

-er or White Flight Justification Song [draft]


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?

(thanks to my running partner this morning for airing these ers out)

Dear Republican and Your Boyfriend Who Sat with Us at the Comedy Show in D.C.

Thank you for laughing at the same jokes.

Thank you for confiding you ran your high school’s canned food drive when the comic accused us: an audience of nerds.

Thank you for your handsome face.

Thank you for assuring me that “90% of all the Republican men” you work with on the Capitol are gay, that the religious freedom laws are “blown out of proportion” by the left.

Thank you for being so sure that what our President is doing is largely just what the last president has done and the president before him.

Thank you for telling me you’re 25 but not telling me your name.

Thank you for not helping me look you up after I watch you crowd into an oversized taxi with your buddies, wondering when you will run for office in your home state, North Carolina.

Thank you for pointing out just how many gay Republicans under 30 were in the audience tonight, all of us laughing about the 43 year old comic’s body, what he told us of his smug grocery cart full of peppers and kale.

Thank you for spilling your drink, for having two of them.

Thank you for the light touch to your lover’s knee, your lover from Georgia like I am from Georgia.

Thank you for your handsome knit sweater and your spikey blonde hair.

Thank you for asking why we can’t just respect the president three minutes before the room went dark.

Thank you for listening to my question about your flawed messenger.

Thank you for your grinning agreement, that he could have done “the rollout” better.

Thank you for not using words like chain migration or sin.

Thank you for telling me you are “out” on the hill with “of course” eyebrow body language.

Thank you for telling me the administration will uphold Obama’s order against anti-LGBT workplace discrimination.

Thank you for laughing, as if this were all a big joke, as if we’re all reading fake news, as if the comics are where we must turn to clink drinks, touch whomever wants to be touched under the table, shake hands and help each other take pictures, even feel each other’s young and older hearts beating with the rush of our after-show destinies out of the dark bar, onto the cold street.

Thank you for asking about my name tag, for learning that I’m a writer.

Thank you for letting my friend take my picture with you, to remember your face, that brief respite from grief.



Changing Locations, Translations, and Micro-validations for a More Public Poetry Pedagogy

Author: Melisa Cahnmann-Taylor

Paper to be presented at the annual meeting of American Writing Programs (AWP), Washington D.C. February 9, 2017

*Cite fully, but please do not cite without first alerting the author*


Published online at http://www.teachersactup.com

Once a public educator and now a poet and teacher educator in the field of language and literacy education at the University of Georgia, I’ve heard some unkind academic attitudes toward public audiences: ignorant until proven otherwise. “They don’t read,” “they can’t write,” “they don’t buy books,” and “they’re so busy texting, they’ve forgotten how to spell!”–these and other dismissive comments assume that a wide section of the public isn’t prepared or even interested to enter the world of great literature. We groan, we bemoan–the public isn’t attending our poetry readings, ordering our books, or even browsing our shelves at the library. Our response? We wouldn’t want “that” public reading our fine literature anyhow! But to dismiss a public that is actively resistant to literature alongside those who may not feel compelled by it or welcomed, is a costly mistake. As the famous educator, Paulo Freire, reminds us, “No one is born fully-formed: it is through self-experience in the world that we become what we are.” To become a reader, much less a writer of poetry is a process of becoming, one in which I believe poets must actively nurture as part of a public poetry pedagogy. We can and do worry about a disinterested public. The question is: what are we writers going to do about it? What have we been doing or not doing as poets and writers to invite larger, more diverse audiences to literature’s small “fine dining” table?

As a poet, I’ve been told to just accept small audiences: after all, poetry “doesn’t sell.” Before publication of my first book, I met with a noted professor and poetry critic who warned I’d be lucky, like most poets, if I sold more than 50 copies of my first book to anyone other than friends and family. We engage the public with our work, grateful to have a few seats filled, maybe a lady in a blue sweater taking a snooze in our front row (yes, this did happen during my own reading at the Writers’ House in Philadelphia). Wislaw Szymborska’s opening stanza of “Poetry Reading” conveys it best:

To be a boxer, or not to be there
at all. O Muse, where are our teeming crowds?
Twelve people in the room, eight seats to spare
it’s time to start this cultural affair.
Half came inside because it started raining,
the rest are relatives. O Muse.

complete Szymborska poem

Should we poets content ourselves with slender audiences, tiny book sections in the few remaining bookstores, an occasional poem at a wedding or funeral? Do we politely laugh or nod when a friend or neighbor tells us they “don’t get poetry” or that it intimidates them–so they don’t read it? Shall we continue to shrug our shoulders and dismiss findings from the National Endowment for the Arts’ Participation Survey that reported in 2012 that fewer than half of all U.S. adults surveyed (47.0 percent, or 110.5 million), had read a novel, short story, poem, or play that year; of those only 7% said they’d read poetry (SPPA, 2012, p.24). Poets and writers, if we want our work to matter to readers, we have to think more creatively. What might we do differently? What lessons can be learned from public school teachers about how to consider the act of producing literature also an act of public education?

A public poetry pedagogy not only means we can’t assume an audience for our work, but also that it is incumbent upon the poets themselves to make our craft relevant, accessible, and meaningful for new and continuing readers. Some might read this statement, and worry that I propose to “dumb down” complicated verse or create “Hallmark card” appeal to the masses. Poets should pen all the experimental, dense poetry we like, that we’re trained to do–but lacking official curators for our readings and books, I believe we share the responsibility to help a lay public to feel more welcomed and less intimated; more footholds and less dangling. How might we transform those we presume to be “adverse” to literature, to verse?

In 2016 the National Endowment for the Arts celebrated the tenth anniversary of the “Big Read,” a federally-funded program designed to help communities read and discuss a single book of literary merit. I have been fortunate to receive two of these grants and learned a great deal through constructing community-wide events to celebrate two of the four American poets who had made it to the list: Robinson Jeffers and Edgar Allan Poe. For the anniversary, the NEA launched a new, radically wonderful new list with three vibrant living poets –Joy Harjo, Kevin Young, and Claudia Rankine. Although I was sad that Jeffers and Poe had left the list, I was thrilled to read a list of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction books that included more poets and writers representing tremendous linguistic, racial, and national diversity. While the list is newly contemporary and diverse, public readers may still fail to live up to our hopes and expectations.

With all the recent exclusionary political rhetoric of this past election season and with the 50th anniversary of AWP celebrated at the annual 2017 meeting, I propose these three small and larger considerations of action we can take to promote such a public poetry agenda: changing locations, translations, and micro-validations.

  1. Location, location, location: From Bookshops to Bus Stops.

Many writers plan literature events to take place in libraries, bookstores, or on university campuses. These spaces make sense–they are often low-cost or free, welcoming, and easy for planners to arrange, attractive to audiences of continuing readers. However, if we want to take literature and place it into the hands of a wider and more diverse audience we need to think about locating literature in ever more public spaces. Mark Smith and Bob Holman’s Poetry Slam movement in Chicago and New York are great examples of bringing Spoken word verse into popular bars and nightclubs; The MTA debuted the Poetry in Motion program in 1992, placing poems on public transit; poet activists and laureates alike have helped more poems appear in parks, platforms, local radio shows, popular broadcast media, and in local papers. I think when poets plan our own readings, we might follow these good leads and consider alternative venues for sharing our work and to ask ourselves: for whom it will or will not be comfortable to attend? How might a subtle shift in “where” also affect the “who,” “how many,” and “to what end” regarding relevance to potential readers.

The first NEA Big Read project we had focused on the poetry of Robinson Jeffers. In a university town with a majority African American population, I wanted the keynote event to focus on poetry in response to ecology but I worried about audiences looking too much like Robinson Jeffers himself, attractive to a majority of older, white men (and women). Having invited Camille Dungy, author of several volumes of stirring poetry and editor of the Georgia Press anthology, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, it became even more important to me that the event be a comfortable place for African American attendance. We asked the historic African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church leaders if they would become partners and host an evening event. After checking to be sure Dungy’s verse wouldn’t be too “off color” in language, the pastor and congregation agreed. After Dungy’s event, many expressed deep gratitude for a writer who was able to speak with them in the languages “of home.”

While anecdotally it may appear to have been a simple switch from library or bookshop to A.M.E. church venue, but the creative relocation of poetry to this new space, involved numerous meetings, email exchanges and phone conversations to establish trust and organize the logistics. The changes weren’t simple, but the results were extremely rewarding, and have since lead to more dynamic invitations and open doors to future collaborative events. One cannot assume that diverse communities will immediately hop on board with new hosting responsibilities, but with persistence and care, great differences may come.

Translation: Keepin’ it Real

We think of translation as only necessary from one language to another yet the “language of literature”–whether it’s the modestly archaic English of Shakespeare or even Edgar Allan Poe to the experimental opacity of some contemporary verse, we who love this literature must think of ourselves also as translators from esoteric jargon, what may be perceived as high falutin words and experiences, into a public conversation. I have seen one too many poets learn they had 10, 15, or 20 minutes to read and fill that space entirely with poems themselves, overlooking or afraid of opportunities to tell an intimate story about any given poem’s trigger or composition. Audiences benefit when we “translate” the “inside story” shine–the things you couldn’t put in the book or didn’t put in the book, the funny anecdotes you accumulate by reading from the book–all of these are small gifts to your audience, ones which translate relevance and connection. I worry when poets expect their audience “to get” their work and/or feel they dumb it down if they were to comment upon the poems. Great art may be able to speak for itself, but if we want to break the perception Griswold (2001) described, that literature is reserved for those who possess educated, upper middle class status, then it’s incumbent upon writers, too, to take small actions toward change.

What does translation (as invitation) look like in practice? Ironically, one of the most startling moments of translation for inclusivity I have observed was at a reading of Ilya Kaminsky’s book Dancing in Odessa. Deaf since the age of four, Kaminsky has a strong accent to his spoken language. In order to facilitate the audience’s ability to fully understand the poems, he lent out copies of his then-new book so we could follow along with his reading. This small action modeled good “bilingual and disability citizenship,” giving access to listeners who might have a hard time comprehending his oral performance. What might it look like if more hearing or monolingual-English poets were able to bring written copies of their poems along with them as supports for audience members for whom English poetry may be a second and/or unfamiliar tongue? I don’t believe this dumbs down the experience of the art, but expands and enhances it.

Providing stories and intimacies, footnotes and end notes, sharing copies of the written poems or discussing the investment in craft that went with a poem’s making–these are some of the many ways in which poets can and often do assist readers and audience members in translating the complexities ad joys of making and sharing poetry.


Sue (2007) has written about a term called “microagressions” which was broken down into microassaults, microinsults and microinvalidations. Microagressions refer to small, often unintended remarks that make a person feel underestimated or stereotyped based on a person’s color, ethnicity, language, or gender. Microagressions can also occur when there are gaps, when, for example, a social media discussion requests titles of “most influential first books of poetry” and the majority of names listed are those of male writers; or when a poetry conference is planned and the presenters make minimal or no inclusion of poets of color either on the panelist list or when making references to work of importance. If poets want to pick up new readers (and keep them), we must be trained to reverse this trend and pursue what I call “micro-validations:” small, often intended actions to be inclusive and validate diverse experience and perspective. What does microvalidation look like in practice? Aside from the illustrations above, including small and larger shifts in location and translation, another form may be that of caring and critical reflection. When publishing and presenting, forming writing groups online and in person, writers might continue to ask: who’s in the room (literal and figurative) and who’s not in the room (in the anthology, on the panel, listed in the conference brochure, and so on). Writers, like our host societies, are imperfect and we often live and write in homogenous circles. By asking ourselves who is here and not here in any given poetry context, we might begin to see our inclinations and biases and slowly consider microactivities toward expansive change. Such changes may also positively influence our own writing and thinking.

We might also exercise less defensiveness and more concern when oversights and gaps are brought to our attention. I have seen one too many writers state in defense that their intentions were good or rational–there are good reasons, not racist or sexist ones, for reproducing a stereotype, for overlooking diversity on a panel, for only including writers from one nation or language group, gender or race. There are lots of good reasons why we overlook inclusion or are mistaken for being racist or stereotypical. One strong form of micro-validation in such moments is deep listening that begins with an apology. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I hurt your feelings. I’m sorry I didn’t do a better job with inclusion. I’m sorry and I thank you –for bringing this to my attention so that I might do better next time. There will be a next time and a next time.

Aside: This week we mourn the passing of Thomas Lux who through the Poetry at Tech program, always made small and larger movements in microvalidation–opening up his home to celebrate poetry with as large and diverse an audience as Atlanta could hold. He said yes to small and large invitations.

And yet, no matter what, we can always do better–even if we take the exact same action, maybe we can be more clear about our reasoning and intent and whom this might impact.

Recently, at the University of Georgia we celebrated the work of Kimiko Hahn, gorgeous poet as well as translator of Japanese verse. We were honored that the Consulate General of Japan accepted our invitation to accompany Ms. Hahn from Atlanta to our campus, to open the event. They shared a stirring video of the way poetry is honored and elevated by the Japanese Imperial Family and closed the event with special serving of Japanese tea. While our campus and community have a relatively small Asian population of less than 5%, sometimes the diversity that has the least representation “in the room” can expand everyone’s consciousness to new ways of being inclusively human in the world. All of us in the audiences benefitted from learning about the deference and public status poetry has had in Japan. However, I am still sorry. I’m sorry I didn’t do more to schedule the event at a time when even more members of our local and regional public might have been able to attend. I’m sorry I didn’t locate the event in a place that was more easily accessible to the public instead of on the university campus. I can and will do better next time.

Finally, micro-validations include micro-invitations which can vary from including diverse contributors to books and poetry events to considerations of where and how events are advertised and how novice audience members are welcomed at the door. Learning how to make an event more relevant and inclusive often begins with ground-floor planning–including mixing music with poetry and other art forms, inviting diverse participation in an event, advertising on a wide variety radio stations and public media that include the Latino and African American stations, and making accommodations for the disabled or hearing impaired. If we have ever been disappointed to arrive as poets to a half-empty, white room, micro-validation might be simply to stop and to ask ourselves what might be done differently the next time? We may already be “publisher” and “publicist” as well as poet so we might as well add “event planner” to our list. If we care enough to create literary experiences that are compelling to a busy, public audience, then we have to find small and larger ways to validate that audience, to reflect on what we are doing and what we might do better the next time.

As sensitive to diversity as one might be, each of us carries with us the limitations of time and our own experiences. We are bound to miss an opportunity to include everyone. Besides, including “everyone” would be impossible and exhausting. But helping everyone feel welcome and validated in the world of poetry writing is not only possible but imperative.

What Poets Can Learn from Teachers

Poets would benefit from thinking about poetry reading “at risk” in a similar manner to the ways in which critical educators address “at risk” students–the problem is not the readers or students themselves, but the systems that perpetuate poetry as an exclusive or elitist literary art. Students who struggle in school are often labeled “at risk” because the school curricula and structures themselves need changing. Rather than change the public’s perception of poetry, the focus ought to be placed on changing the locations, translations, and microvalidations that exist to help more of the public feel welcome and invited through poetry’s doors. This is already happening in the way our local elementary school hosts a “poetry picnic” for students and families; the way many poets post poems they love on social media; the way NEA literature director, Amy Stolls, initiated changes to the official “Big Read” list to encourage reading more books in translation and by writers of all colors, nations, and other forms of diversity.  A truly public poetry pedagogy is composed of a diversity of locations, translations, and micro-validations. These changes may be large and structural or as small as placing a poem above a coffee pot in a workroom. What small or larger efforts have you experienced? What might you imagine? May the next 50 years bring greater public exposure and invitation to poetry of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Derald Wing Sue, Christina M. Capodilupo, Gina C. Torino, Jennifer M. Bucceri, Aisha M. B. Holder, Kevin L. Nadal, and Marta Esquilin. “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life Implications for Clinical Practice.” American Psychologist, May-June 2007.

Paulo Freire. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 1970.

Griswold, W. “The ideas of the reading class.” Contemporary Sociology, 30, 4-6, 2001.

Poem to Remember to Read on Thanksgiving

I’m going to assign a “thank you” poem assignment.  This one takes the cake, the pumpkin pie right off the turkey head.  This poem was published below on Perez’ website and is up for a prize from Rattle where it is written in couplets.





Thank you, instant mashed potatoes, your bland taste

makes me feel like an average American. Thank you,

incarcerated Americans, for filling the labor shortage

and packing potatoes in Idaho. Thank you, canned

cranberry sauce, for your gelatinous curves. Thank you,

Ojibwe tribe in Wisconsin, your lake is now polluted

with phosphate-laden discharge from nearby cranberry

bogs. Thank you, crisp green beans, you are my excuse

for eating apple pie ala mode later. Thank you, indigenous

migrant workers, for picking the beans in Mexico’s farm belt,

may your children survive the season. Thank you, NAFTA,

for making life dirt cheap. Thank you, Butterball Turkey,

for the word, butterball, which I repeat all day butterball,

butterball, butterball because it helps me swallow the bones

of genocide. Thank you, dark meat for being so juicy

(no offense, dry and fragile white meat, you matter too).

Thank you, 90 million factory farmed turkeys, for giving

your lives during the holidays. Thank you, factory farm

workers, for clipping turkey toes and beaks so they don’t scratch

and peck each other in overcrowded, dark sheds. Thank you,

genetic engineering and antibiotics, for accelerating

their growth. Thank you, stunning tank, for immobilizing

most of the turkeys hanging upside down by crippled legs.

Thank you, stainless steel knives, for your sharpened

edge and thirst for throat. Thank you, de-feathering

tank, for your scalding-hot water, for finally killing the last

still conscious turkeys. Thank you, turkey tails, for feeding

Pacific Islanders all year round. Thank you, empire of

slaughter, for never wasting your fatty leftovers. Thank you,

tryptophan, for the promise of an afternoon nap;

I really need it. Thank you, store bought stuffing,

for your ambiguously ethnic flavor, you remind me

that I’m not an average American. Thank you, gravy,

for being hot-off-the-boat and the most beautiful

brown. Thank you, dear readers, for joining me at the table

of this poem. Please join hands, bow your heads, and repeat

after me: “Let us bless the hands that harvest and butcher

our food, bless the hands that drive delivery trucks

and stock grocery shelves, bless the hands that cooked

and paid for this meal, bless the hands that bind

our hands and force feed our endless mouth.

May we forgive each other and be forgiven.

Big league or did he say bigly

Here is my draft poem for class this week where we read Roethke’s “Dolor”–I tell my students to check their syllable counts (assignment is 10+ this week per line); review for “cliché,” power up verbs, make sure there’s music, grounded imagery, that their politics not be too heavy handed (or to absent).

I say: Work your words.  They matter.

response to this article and so much more: NYTimes Article


Sentence Diagram Dolor (draft)

after T. Roethke



I have known the relentless rules of grammar,

walls drawn between verbs and their subjects, direct

objects like trailing spouses, the burden

of adjectives describing hand sizes, pricking

nouns’ softened bellies, lead mistakes blurred

by pink erasers’ bluster, tear of ruled

paper, narrow blue lines, red cheeked errors

mudded with white out, the wet waiting to reclassify.

And I have winced at the confusion of phonics:

“big league” or did he say “bigly” to boast cuts

in taxes, regulations, speed by which we sign

protest, beg language to govern again, coordinate

bent and broken lines to unify and rise.

January 20, 2017

“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good. What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take “everyone on Earth” to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale”

Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Estes’ writing gives me more hope than my own, but I feel this poem draft gives room for my sadness to breathe and is a “calm thing that one soul can do.”  W.C. Williams wrote:

“It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.”

And this morning, I read Williams’ poems and wrote.

Eight a.m., January 20, 2017, Arlington, Virginia [new draft]


Gauzy curtain, through transom glass,

mailboxes on crotchety legs,


curbed, trash-can rule breakers,

burdened electric wire sag,


persistent squirrel squeak

beneath higher than thou branches,


white-breasted nuthatches squalk,

din about dim, misplaced spring, orange


cloud-gashes, a blaring bandstand day, tumbled

like pebbles of grief-stricken sky.

Write. It feels good.

My poetry class met on Monday and it’s now Thursday. This morning is the first day I sat down to write a new poem (in too many weeks, months?).  I am sad I waited this long but I think I waited because I needed the courage to rev the engines again, to clear the room of the haunting voices that say: you can’t write, what have you got to say? nothing will be good when you start, so why start now?

But this morning the house is quiet, I rise early and I remember my instructions to the students: find a place to sit and write regularly for a few minutes each day.  Sit in the same place.  See how it changes as you document what you see.  Write without editing, just write.  Then you will find your ten best lines, 5 or more best couplets to write an observation poem as we discussed in “Nantucket”  (by W.C. Williams). [*merged assignment learned from great mentors Anne Waldman and Robin Becker].

So here I am and after having written this first draft on the first “warm” morning we’ve had in North Georgia in awhile. I feel a sense of relief.  I saw things.  I put them into words.  I felt the symbolism or the emerging symbolism of my day to day world.  It is pleasing, just the way it is pleasing to exercise –AFTER it is over.

So I urge my students (and myself): start.  If you have already started, or have a regular writing practice, good for you! It does take time to find one’s words, to find exact language that is not something that comes on a cereal box.  It’s hard work to name our worlds in our own ways.  But it’s worth it to discover one’s own voice and then to be able to inspire that in our students, and the students of our students.  In this political economy of twisted words and half truths, it’s vital to touch base with the power of language, of truth “worked out” and sweaty on the page.

Please write.  Do it for you, for your students, for me.  It takes time so please don’t wait any more (like I did).  And please ask me, ask one another: did you write today? 3 minutes? 5? It doesn’t take long to get in the habit. We may discover ways we can add our small observations to the larger world, how to bear the grief and pain of it and celebrate joy.


It’s not a poem yet but at least there are words to mark the passing of time.  Here they are –no line breaks, a little judgement–in their drafty first day back form.  I hope to return to this same seat tomorrow.


Kitchens, draft one.

My eyes used to linger only on the dining table:narrow legs, flimsy hold, small length, middle gash of liquid stain. Now I see transom glass and pressed tin, selecting exact specifications of my next dwelling–pregnant pantry, counter space berth, a centered island where I can watch dishes while my children grow to party like adults, envisioning their own someday kitchens, rising to a deep sink bowl, undermounted to quartz, a touch faucet for messy hands, a dishwasher that whispers, as if this truly were a retreat, sanded floor ocean lapping against new barstools, sunbathing beneath glowy pendant balls hanging down from the sky. And can lights, lots of cans. These are the distractions to content ourselves while our filthy rich politicians get served heavy appetizer platters in their many domiciles.   No one tells you the underside of the dream kitchen–that it will someday fail. Too many cords where they do not belong, the fluorescent green color giving way to something new or ‘retro’. No one mentions how a kitchen dirties, no matter how much storage, the milk still spills, spoiling floors, leaving its rank smell behind. How the cookie trays rust. How to replace things. I’ve learned to want the next one and the next one, to wish for another light here, a shelf there, a new heavy gadget and a corner to set it. I finally have a fancy electric mixer that does all the work. But someone has to mix then clean while another one eats and eats and eats.


Doctoral Student Advising -9/2016

Two of my doctoral students wrote with extensive worry about how to strategically plan one’s dissertation to coincide with job market value and so I am writing my opinion about this.  I want to caution all doctoral students who read this that any one person’s advice, no matter how wise it sounds, is always compromised by the small corner of this process we each have experienced.  Take this and any other advice with a grain of salt and perhaps these will become notes for another publication of some kind.


FAQ: Will my dissertation topic be valuable on the job market? How can I broaden what I’m doing to make it more marketable?


As architect Mies Van der Rhoe is famous for saying, “God is in the details.” My own experience with doctoral advising as well as interviewing other new PhDs for positions in our department, is that the more specific and focused your dissertation, often the better. You may think, for example, that a dissertation focused on the general question of second language acquisition would be a more marketable theme than one focused on study abroad programs to Beijing. However, a general topic is at risk of being perceived as unfocused and too broadly defined. I believe you must first ground yourself in a very specific case and from there, you can draw important specific as well as general implications for the general field—your ability to take a specific focus on study abroad in Beijing and connect it to the wider field of TESOL or Mandarin instruction or approaches to world language education will be what makes the difference to your success. While there may be a position specifically seeking someone with expertise in Beijing study abroad—this is unlikely. More likely, it will be your whole package that will be evaluated for fit. If the job you want has one committee person vested in only hiring someone fluent in Turkish—you may not know this and you may not get the job. What can you do? Your responsibilty as a doctoral student is to find your passion and dive into this world deeply, making connections between literatures and theories that may never have been brought together before. What makes you a unique candidate is your unique and specific focus and then the way you take that depth and specificity and help it become relevant to a wider community. However, this does not mean that all specific foci will be equally valued in the job market place for faculty or administration. This leads to the next FAQ.


FAQ: If I do focus my dissertation topic on something very specific, how can I situate myself to get the job that I want (or a job in XYZ state for with ABC teaching load etc.).


When I was completing my dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania, I had never imagined I would take a job in Athens, Georgia. I had hardly been to the South and couldn’t imagine how I would fit in such a place. But when I completed the dissertation and there was a job announcement that seemed to be a good match with my degree, my dissertation focus, and my skills, I knew that I would apply for this job and I was thrilled the committee felt I was a good match and voila! My life was changed. I realized then, that when pursuing an academic position, one seldom has much control. When one year the “hot” issue is a need for a focus on face to face courses on immigrant education and the next cycle, the need is for “online second language courses”—you will drive yourself crazy if you try to shift your coursework, writing, and research according to what appear to be market trends. All you can do, is to strive for depth and quality, write to publish, network with a variety of experts in your subfield(s) and consider how you might “diversify the portfolio” of what you do—e.g. if you focus on a narrow topic of co-teaching in the push-in ESOL classroom (for a real example), then perhaps also consider how to publish on your research methods (case study or performative focus groups; mixed methods or classroom discourse etc.), and articulate your unique theoretical framework as well. Don’t change WHAT you do, but how you package what you do and its relevance in different terrain. Maybe your work is “education” generally but might lend itself to a Romance Language or Comparative literature department. Maybe your methods are qualitative but you also integrate software programming that may be relevant for a position in Instructional Technology.     You have no control over this. Repeat. You have no control over what kinds of jobs will be available when you are ready to apply for positions. But you do have control over the passion and depth you invest into your subject and to review the job availability trends. You can begin in your 2nd or 3rd year of your Ph.D. to review the Chronicle of Higher Education regularly and begin to identify what types of positions are the closest matches for what you bring to the table. You will also be able to see who is posting these jobs and keep your eye on the field. You can also note who is moving the field in articles you read—where are the authors employed? Does this department look like a good fit? You cannot tell if you would be an addition to such a program or viewed as redundant. You have no control. So what can you do? When jobs are important and you can’t control what the academy will want when you graduate, what options do you have…..


FAQ: What if I never get a university position or the only positions available have extremely high teaching loads that leave too little time for writing or are in locations where you don’t want to be?


Again, repeat: you have no control. But you do have control over researching what kinds of related work you might pursue if your ideal university position is not available or even a job that is not ideal at all. University Professorships become fewer and fewer while our economy is falling to pieces. State university budgets become tighter—as faculty retire or leave, these positions aren’t always replaced. Language departments have suffered deeply. Who would have thought French departments would be removed? But this has happened because of some perceptions that fields of literature are no longer desirable or sustainable. We can grieve these changes, fight them, but we also need to ask why these changes are taking place and what we might do to keep ourselves relevant. This includes being able to shift how we use our doctoral degrees for a position in the field. Some students look at different administrative and planning offices on K-16+ campus for work: Centers for Teaching and Learning; Study Abroad program directors; Language program directors; interdisciplinary work across language education and other programs; K-12 school leadership; other campus entities (e.g. Latin American Studies institutes, Asian American Studies, African Diaspora Studies, Women Studies, Qualitative Research Programs, etc etc.). Some students complete Phds and work in governmental positions (United Nations, Centers for Disease Control; Fulbright offices, positions with other national governments looking to develop L2 and/or English world language programming); others work in private business (Testing agencies, curriculum development, publishing houses). There are many many jobs for which those holding Ph.D. degrees with expertise in second or world language programming qualify. There is no use in worrying but there is value in getting to know the interconnected web of those who are interested in what you do and/or could value from your area(s) of expertise.


FAQ: What do people really look for in a prospective candidate for a university professor position?


From my experience drafting calls for position announcements, the committee often tries to balance the specific needs held by the program (e.g. need to find a new colleague who specializes in online TESOL instruction or expertise in assessment, bilingual education in the U.S., etc.) against more general descriptions to draw a healthy pool of applicants to consider. Committee members often create rubrics that identify the extent to which a candidate matches the job ad criteria (holds a Ph.D. in the specified field; to things that are more specific, e.g. “fluent in Korean and one other non-English language,” for example. Look closely at the required qualifications and do not waste your time with applications for jobs where you do not fit the criteria. If you may fit, but you are not sure, you may inquire with the chair of the search committee. Often these queries are positive ways to identify yourself as interested in the position. You should maintain a professional demeanor in all such correspondence—everything you write can and will be used in discussions of your candidacy. Maintain a formal and interested tone as you determine if you are truly a good fit for any given position. Committees look carefully at letters of recommendation—who is sending them, are they online, do they professionally and positively evaluate the candidate. Letters are very important. Accomplishments are also important—are you actively publishing your work? Are you pursuing grant support? Does your teaching philosophy match the department’s interest?


In Sum: You can never know if your Ph.D. work will come together at the right time and with the right degree of rigor and relevance to land you the job you want, where you want it. Instead of focusing energy on the “what if” situations of a precarious job market, it is wise to invest all that energy into a focused and passionate dissertation as well as side projects (with other mentor faculty and peers) that create a varied yet focused portfolio of work that will help you put your best foot forward for academic as well as related positions requiring or desiring a Ph.D.. While we all require jobs at the end of this process, we also must acknowledge the limited control we have over what job and where. However, a focus on high quality reading, writing, and thinking will always result in opportunity. “Do the best you can.” That is what I suggest you say to yourself over and over. “The best dissertation is a done dissertation”—yes and one that is focused and meaningful to you personally. You are making many sacrifices to pursue this degree so it should be one that you are doing because you must, because you care about this field and topic, and because in the end you will bring an informed wisdom to a wide variety of opportunity which you are prepared to find and/or create.

First Reading from my new book: August 19, 2016 at Avid Bookshop!


Friday night August 19, 2016!!! I will be accompanied by one of my favorite Athens musicians–Dan Horowitz on bass.  We’ll be next door to Avid at the Firehouse–please help me fill the space with community.

Imperfect Tense

% of US adults who read poetry…..or anything

Too few US Americans read literature (plays, novels, poetry, short stories).  We’re too busy watching series on netflix or HBO or fiddling with our iphones.  I need to put my devices down (not the kindle app!) and join the mission–with many other educators and writers–to change these statistics.   What else can explain the fiction of this year’s Republican and Democratic nominations for president? You can see reading stats in this dismal graphic:



The % of US adults who read any fiction is less than 50%.

Sadly, the % of US adults 18 and older who read poetry has declined to a mere 8.3%.

And yet my 8-year-old son begs us to read poems at bedtime, delights our copy of Hailstones and Halibut bones.  My 6 year old daughter pulls out a book of children’s verse from the Free Library Box in front of a neighbor’s house with glee! She pleasures in the surprise of rhyme, the taboo talk of burps, the sonic nonsense of Jabberwocky, the fresh imagery of Strand’s lines:

     Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

—from “Eating Poetry” by Mark Strand

Good readers play a crucial role in enriching our cultural and civic life. They are more likely to ask questions of those running for political office.  They are more likely to do their homework and question what is stated as “fact” to win votes.  They are more likely to stand up for others, to understand differences in perspective, to vote in elections, to volunteer, to do charity work, to question bullying (Trump), to imagine what is possible instead of caving to the inevitable (“I would vote for Bernie, but…..”).  Non-reading has dire consequences including these:

  • Deficient readers are more likely than skilled readers to be out of the workforce.
  • Poor reading skills are endemic in the prison population

The data from this 2008 study and the 2004 NEA “Nation at Risk” study before that, prompt three unsettling conclusions:

  • Americans are spending less time reading.
  • Reading comprehension skills are eroding.
  • These declines have serious civic, social, cultural, and economic implications.

Let’s talk.

What are we reading and what are we not reading?  Let’s dare one another to read for pleasure.  Let’s find creative ways to turn pages of a great short story, novel, play, or book of poetry–please read a whole book of poetry.  Think poetry is too elitist? Too hard? Too much of a turn off? I’ll help you find a good poem, a good book of poems……and be sure to read poetry out loud, hear the words sizzle.  Oh, and please mark your calendars for election day and vote!


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