Douglas Hesse

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The Death of Mailer in the Life of NCTE

Clinton and 2012 Students

2012 student winners, plus another guy.

Alec Baldwin checked how to pronounce my name. Keith Richards sat beside Bill Clinton. It was the top floor ballroom of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York, and I was introducing winners of the NCTE/Norman Mailer National Writing Awards. Along with their prizes, three students received $5000, and a South Carolina English teacher and NCTE member Kay McSpadden got a check and a plaque from Garrison Keillor who, from the podium, took particular delight that this wife of a Presbyterian minister had titled her winning story “Why Women Moan in Bed.”

I recount that evening, October 4, 2012, because NCTE is currently inviting submissions for the 2016 NCTE/Mailer Awards, in the categories of creative nonfiction and poetry. Complete information is available at It costs nothing to submit, but the deadline is May 2. NCTE members do initial rounds of reading up to a group of finalists, and panels of well-known writers select the winners.

Now, you may be curious, at least, about these particular awards—perhaps even skeptical. After all, Norman Mailer was a particular, sometimes polarizing figure in American letters. Further, contests themselves can be problematic, sometimes conflicting with learning. My friend and current Mailer awards chair Bonnie Sunstein, (from the University of Iowa and from whom I swiped this blog title), and I reviewed the history, the complications, and the values of these awards in a session at the NCTE Convention in 2015.

The history, in a nutshell, was that after Mailer died in 2008, Larry Schiller (author, director, photographer, Emmy winner, and co-author/friend of Mailer) contacted Kent Williamson about sponsoring student writing contests in his honor. In addition to generous funding, Schiller could bring high-level contact to the arts and entertainment world. Indeed, the people involved over the years, beyond those  mentioned, have included Toni Morrison (who was once an NCTE member, she told me), Dick Cavett, Maya Angelou, Salman Rushdie, John Waters, Ken Burns, Oliver Stone, Joyce Carol Oates, Muhammad Ali, and countless others.   The New York Times regularly runs a story on the awards.  Kent and the Executive Committee asked me to work with Schiller, and the awards were timed in conjunction with the first National Day on Writing.

I suggested that the awards should be in creative nonfiction, among whose genres Mailer had certainly worked successful. There were plenty of fiction and poetry contests, but we needed to encourage students—and their teachers—to write memoir, personal essay, literacy journalism, and so on. Schiller agreed. The result has been a trove of student work stunning in both content and form, giving voice to the lives of high school and college writers. Consider, for example, the title of this piece, by a high school student:

“Things about My Parents I Forgot to Tell the Woman Who is Deciding Custody of My Brother, Sister, and Me”

Or these opening lines from another one:

‘Yes, my father left my family over an online game called Second Life.
No, I’m not kidding.
I wish I were.”

Or this incredible opening by a third:

“My hometown is made of break walls surrounding a harbor where young children jump off and a man who once gave me an eagle feather got drunk and floated out on a mattress to the middle of the harbor at three in the morning and was torn through with the hull of a speed boat driven by a man who’s daughter was my best friend and the owner of the bar. They had chatted that night, the killed man and the killer, and the killer told the killed man to leave his bar because he was closing down for the night and the killed man had had too much Jack Daniels to stay. That boat came up in between that man’s legs and all he left was that wife, those kids, and that eagle feather.” –Kiley Harrison

Or this first sentence from the 2010 college winner:

One day in Saigon in 1987—nine years after he had failed his escape attempt by boat, was captured, was imprisoned, ran away, was beaten unconscious and recaptured, was imprisoned, dug hundreds of thousands of spoons of dirt, ran away, was recaptured, was imprisoned, chained, and hung upside down in a cell every night, escaped with the help of a Communist friend, had arrest warrants posted on him, five years after he had settled in Dalat in his mother’s house, waited day by day for the police to come get him, met my mother, married her, and had two children—my father was hiding out and talking with his uncle, who translated American papers and documents for clients, and his uncle told him about a certain document he had translated recently, and this document explained that veterans of the Army of the Republic of Viet-Nam (ARVN) were welcome to petition for their and their family’s emigration to the United States of America. –Minh Phuong Nguyen “Suffering Self: Khồ Mình, Mình Khồ”

You can read great writing from winners on the NCTE website, including Kay McSpadden’s story that so intrigued Keillor.  Just as importantly, you can encourage students to tell their own stories, explore their own lives, make a space for writing beyond reports, analyses, and arguments.

First Mailer Story

NCTE Council Chronicle story of the first Mailer awards Nov. 2009.



Problem-Driven Writing?

Berkeley First Slide

On March 11, I spoke at a symposium on “Undergraduate Education in the Public University,” at Berkeley. The symposium mainly featured high-level level university administrators and policy leaders, people like University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel and Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks. I was the only speaker talking about a specific subject area. (The other two professors  discussed higher education policy.) My talk, “Scaling Writing in Large Public Universities,” was filmed, and Berkeley plans to release a video of it. Whether I have the courage to watch myself, given my known speaking tics, is another matter entirely. But I’ll post any link that materializes.

For a few paragraphs here, I want to think about a remark that Schlissel made during his keynote. He characterized the 20th Century model of the university as one driven by disciplines, and he characterized the 21st Century model as one driven by problems. My takeaway was that, in terms of undergraduate education, a university driven by disciplines takes its primary orientation as systematically (or, often in the case of fields like English, unsystematically) inculcating students in the particular body of knowledge and ways of thinking as defined by one or more majors. The impetus is covering the major field, which is ultimately a conservative one. That is, conserving the discipline—its content and practices—is the paramount goal, even if a given discipline has a forward-looking element of making new knowledge.

A problem-driven university takes its primary orientation as addressing current issues and problems, whether practical or philosophical. The goal is to move toward resolution or solution, using whatever available bodies of knowledge and practices might be applied. Certain large problems—poverty, racism, gender inequality—are intractable, of course, so my sense of “moving toward” is important. The key thing is that studying texts, ideas, and techniques is ultimately grounded in how the knowledge gained from them might be used.

I think this orientation has important implications for the still fairly nascent field of Writing Studies in the American university. I’ve been a little wary of the rush to disciplinarity in composition studies, especially when some would configure writing departments that seem centered on conserving the field. Schlissel’s observations resonate with my sense that the timing is all wrong: claiming disciplinarity/departmentality in 2016 doesn’t get you what it did in 1986. (I’ve got an article under review somewhere on this topic.)

Putting my musings aside (and putting aside the obvious value of disinterested learning: learning uncoupled from a current issue or problem), I wonder how writing looks in a problem-driven university.

One form could be the themed writing courses that are currently again in ascendancy. Whether writing courses should have a theme has long been controversial. A traditional concern is that themed courses become less about developing student writing abilities than about understanding the course topic; it’s a concern similar to one leveled at literature-based writing courses, where one fear has long been that professors more interested in Emily Dickinson than Aristotle, let alone the writing education of Jennifer Student, would go all in with Dickinson, teaching little writing.

Still, at least some affinities with theme-based writing in the problem-driven university are clear. A challenge would be insuring that there’s a problem component to the theme: an actual open issue needing engaging through writing. Among other things, this might entail readings being left open. Who knows what a writer might need to access in pursuit of a problem? Too, genres may need to be left open, too. Perhaps I’m putting too much emphasis on “authentic” problems, ones still open. Perhaps it’s enough to have “casebook rhetoric” kinds of issues: a theme, some questions, a rhetorical exigency, even if they’re no longer quite live. Thirty years ago I taught from Behrens and Rosen’s Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum, which gathered handfuls of articles on various topics and took students through a variety of writing tasks.

Somehow, though, such an approach seems more in the spirit of “the problem-driven course” than the “problem driven university.” Until we find some radically different way of organizing learning—a way that gets around credit by specialized courses delivered by a disciplinary faculty—perhaps what we can best imagine is problem-driven courses, a shift in both curriculum and pedagogy.

Still, writing courses will face a particular challenge. People expect such courses to develop particular transferrable writing skills and strategies. Even if we know that universal and general writing techniques operate at such a high level of abstraction as to be doomed to fail expectations (for example, “write to your audience,” or “discern and follow target genre conventions” or “writing is revision”), we nonetheless feel some responsibility to teach strategies and techniques. We feel the need to teach a vocabulary and set of analytic lenses about writing, practiced through well-designed tasks with feedback. The problem of problem-driving writing is the problem of writing itself. In a certain respect, writing courses as traditionally practiced are like studio art courses or music composition, where the “problem” is how to create a well-made artifact, with some faith and hope that this experience carries forward to future experiences.

Of course, there’s an entirely different way into this: writing as an aspect of problem confrontations rather than as a class per se. This is the venerable terrain of writing across the curriculum, for which we have plenty of theory and practice. The question is whether those of us in writing studies are willing to abandon writing courses on their current large scale (just keeping a few elective ones) to go all-in with writing as an aspect of any learning, problem-driven enterprise in the university. In order for us to be comfortable doing so, I think we’d need to feel that we’d be equal partners in the enterprise. We’d need to feel that other faculty members and institutional structures were configured and committed to problem-driven learning and we weren’t just the handmaidens and stable boys ancillary to Disciplines Triumphant. I suspect we worry about unilaterally disarming ourselves as a discipline precisely at the moment we’re on the verge of recognition as one.

Advocacy Day: Another Third of a Busy NCTE Week

Platform Writing - 1

Members of the NCTE Policy and Advocacy Committee meet for platform briefings in the Longworth House Office Building, in late January 2016. (My photo)

Thursday, February 25, is NCTE’s Advocacy Day. The Executive Committee and other volunteers gather in Washington, DC, to meet members of Congress and Department of Education officials.  We provide information about NCTE’s education policy platform and request specific actions.

Of course, the idea of a single “advocacy day” is a little foolish. The legislative calendar is long and fluid. And imagining the federal government as the only or even most important site of legislative action affecting education is foolish, too, especially these days.

As you know, in November Congress replaced the Elementary and Secondary Education Act known as “No Child Left Behind” with the new “Every Student Succeeds Act,” which President Obama signed into law. One of the effects of the new law was to curtail national programs for evaluating schools through processes and testing programs that many educators found extremely problematic. But the new law did not as much end assessments as shift responsibilities and procedures for them onto the states, along with many other requirements and concomitant resources.  States gained flexibility.

Now, this is a good thing for states (and their students, families, and teachers) who devise appropriate assessments for literacy learning, who allocate school support funds in equitable ways, who support professional development that is expert teacher-led, and so on. But in other states, where political rather than professional guidelines determine how education dollars are spent, the results could well be no better than No Child Left Behind. In fact, they could be worse. I’m reminded, after all, that NCLB had bi-partisan support, with none other than Ted Kennedy as one of its senate sponsors. Many civil rights groups supported NCLB—and continued to support it all along—because they feared that, absent federal controls and oversight, education would continue to be inequitable in many states and locales.

The new Every Student Succeeds Act, therefore, has resulted in a more complex advocacy environment for education. Rather than mostly a single point of contact, the Federal Government and its funds, there are now fifty points of contact, each state determining within guidelines how to spend allocations to develop processes they’ve been given latitude to develop. Of course, in all sorts of important ways, states and districts have always been the most important site of educational policy, curricula, and professional support. ESSA only amplifies this.

And, of course, any legislation requires rules and regulations for its implementation. Even a fairly detailed law can’t specify everything. Various legislators and bureaucrats are continuing to write those regs (I’ve learned to speak Washingtonian, see?). Part of the goal of NCTE’s Advocacy Day is to influence that process. So, given what’s at stake, I’m not much feeling foolish at all.

Convention Planning: A Third of a Busy NCTE Week

Proposal Reviewing 2015 - 26 (1)This is one of the more exciting weeks each year in life of NCTE.  In the space of four energetic days in Washington, DC, three things happen:  Advocacy Day, an Executive Committee meeting, and Annual Convention Planning. Last year we were greeted by a snowstorm that shut the federal government; I’ll be happy not to have that drama this time around. I’ll tell you about each of these activities, starting in this post with the convention planning process.

The process of building the annual convention has three review levels built into it, the most important of which happens before the face-to-face convention planning meeting.

Proposal Reviewing 2015 - 16

Level One

Let’s imagine that by the January 2016 deadline, you submitted a proposal for “The Apostrophe: Legend, Lore, and Legacy,” and you’ve indicated the main interest audience as Secondary. Your proposal will have been sent, electronically, to two readers in a group of reviewers designated by the Secondary Section Steering Committee or its Chair. (If you had indicated the audience as elementary, middle, college, general, research, or English educators, your proposal would be read by folks from a pool of reviewers designated by each of those groups.)

Your proposal gets rated on four criteria and receives an overall rating from each reviewer. Reviewers also write brief comments. Let’s imagine that your proposal on “The Apostrophe” receives an overall rating of 3 from each online reviewer, for a total rating of 6. All of the ratings and comments for your proposal are gathered and made available to (in your case) a Secondary Section team of two people who are meeting in Washington, DC, along with other review teams.

Prior to that meeting, the convention Program Chair (this year, that’s Susan Houser), has worked with NCTE staff to analyze the proposals and determine how many program slots are available and how they will be allocated. Let’s imagine there are 500 session slots available at the convention. (The number of slots is determined by the number of meeting rooms in the convention center/hotel times the number of session times.) Let’s imagine that there are 2000 total proposals. Historically, NCTE has allocated the number of sessions proportionally to the number of submissions in each are. (There’s one other consideration, but let’s keep things simple.)  An illustration makes it clear.

Suppose those 2000 proposals break down this way:
Elementary Section: 400 (20%)
Middle Section: 400 (20%)
Secondary Section: 600 (30%)
College Section: 100 (5%)
General: 300 (15%)
Research: 100 (5%)
English Education: 100 (5%)

Proposal Reviewing 2015 - 4 (1)Level Two

So, your proposal on “The Apostrophe” is in a pool from which roughly 30% of the convention slots are allocated. 30% of 500 slots is 150. The Secondary reviewers in Washington, then, are trying to determine whether your proposal should earn one of those 150 spaces on the program. Generally, everything with a total rating of 8 is accepted. Generally, so is everything with a rating of 7. But, generally, everything with a total rating of 2, 3, or 4 is not. That leaves a number of proposals with ratings of 5, 6, or sometimes 7 left. There’s not room for all. The review team, then, has to exercise some judgment. They skim the remaining proposals to double-check the online ratings. They look at the comments. They look at the topics and judge which of them might contribute most to the overall program. They combine significant individual presentations into panels with similar individual presentations. In short, they use their very best judgment to decide which are the best 150 proposals from their group.

Level Three

Remember how above I mentioned there is one other consideration? Well, here’s that layer. Many years ago, NCTE determined it was vital to ensure convention space for matters of central importance to our members and mission. As a result, for example, we allocate a certain number of sessions for the Rainbow Strand (issues and strategies related to teaching and affirming culturally and linguistically diverse students), or for Whole Language, for the LBGT Strand, and so on.

When people write convention proposals, they’re invited to identify their proposals as meeting one of these designated foci or interests. A large number of proposals so designated are accepted, of course, through the Level Two process I described above. But space is limited. The Strand Review process provides another route.

Proposal Reviewing 2015 - 15Let’s imagine that you checked “Whole Language” for your proposal on “The Apostrophe” because you were emphasizing ways of teaching this kind of punctuation that fit the principles of whole language instruction. (Humor me!)  Let’s imagine, further, that the Secondary group determined that your proposal wasn’t one of the 150 it could accept. But there’s also a Whole Language review team, which convenes along with other review groups. They look at all of the Whole Language-designated proposals  and choose those that best meet the spirit of the strand. They, like the other Strand groups, have an allotment of program slots they can fill (let’s imagine 10 of them) above and beyond the ones apportioned previously.  Of course, your “Apostrophe” proposal may well have been accepted by the Secondary group.  Congratulations!  If the Whole Language reviewers agree that it meets their criteria, it will show up in the program with the strand designation, and they’ll be able to use their program slots for something else.

The Upshot

Picture, then, a basement hotel conference room in Washington, DC, this Saturday and Sunday, filled with teams of elected and appointed member volunteers, each pondering sets of proposals—more quality proposals than they can possibly accept. That’s the difficult reality everyone faces. It’s a room filled with conversation, animated by the common desire to put together the very best program, one that represents the multiple interests and Proposal Reviewing 2015 - 13needs of NCTE members.

Look elsewhere for my posting I’ll talk about Advocacy Day.


Creative Advocacy and NCTE

Thoughts on advocacy as education in troubling, hopeful times.

Laurie Halse Anderson - 1

[Above: Laurie Halse Anderson’s revisions, explained below.]

NOTE:  Another in a series of completely unofficial, personal musings in a year spent as president of the National Council of Teachers of English.

I’m thinking quite a bit these days about advocacy, these wintry days when a group of armed men have taken over a public building in Oregon to further their cause. I’m thinking about advocacy because on January 10, I’ll be speaking on a joint NCTE/MLA panel at the Modern Language Association Meeting in Austin, Texas. I’m thinking about it because the Call For Proposals for #NCTE16 is due on January 13, and Susan Houser has set our theme as “Faces of Advocacy.” I’m thinking about it because at the end of January, the Subcommittee on Policy and Advocacy convenes in Washington, DC, to write the 2016 NCTE Educational Policy Platform. I’ll say more about these below.

First, however, some thoughts about the point of all this energy.

In her eloquent remarks upon receiving the NCTE Intellectual Freedom Award, writer Laurie Halse Anderson concluded that “Those of us who create for children know that our freedom to think, speak, and write cannot bear fruit unless America respects the intellectual freedom of educators.” I asked Anderson if I might photograph the last page of her script, because I’m always fascinated by a writer’s process and by the material presence in her own handwriting. That picture’s above. You’ll see that the final version of her remarks differs from even her last-minute revision.

I was heartened, then and now, by Anderson’s reminder that artists “are called to do more than simply document or analyze” and that “we must imagine the next reality, the America that truly welcomes and cherishes all of her children.” This last imperative carries the sobering assumption that we don’t truly welcome and cherish all children.

Now, I can sadly imagine that, in fact, there might be some citizens who consciously assert that some children should, in fact, not be welcomed, let alone cherished. I have to believe those folks are decidedly few and mostly ostracized. However, I can easily imagine that what constitutes “cherishing” differs widely among different groups of people, all of whom have the best of intentions and hopes. We see these differences when dubious school reforms, curricula, and pedagogies are proposed—dubious because they’re supported neither by the research base nor the experiences of professionals in the field. But “dubious” does not mean “malicious.”

We have to see advocacy, then, as education. We have knowledge—hard earned, rigorous knowledge—that others don’t have. We need to teach others to whom we should attribute good intentions—even if they’re uninformed or misguided. Like lots of teaching, this is tough work, especially when “good intentions” are shaped by ideology and selective viewpoints.

Along the way, we need to assert the vital importance of the creative and imaginative as part of literacy learning. That was an important theme of Laurie Halse Anderson’s remarks and one to which I’ll turn in future postings.

Each January, NCTE’s Policy and Advocacy Subcommittee meets in Washington, DC, to draft the organization’s annual educational platform. (I chaired this committee last year and am a member this year.) This broad document sets out broad principles of what the Committee believes can be achieved in the upcoming legislative year. The group spends a day meeting with legislative leaders (in 2015, including for example, with the chief educational aids of both Senators Lamar Alexander and Patty Murray) and with selected other educational leaders (including, for example, in 2015 people from the national PTA and the Chief State School Officers). If you look at the 2015 Platform, you’ll find that we had considerable success, particularly in shaping the revised Elementary and Secondary Education Act that was recently passed.

Advocacy at the federal level is important, of course, but all of us realize that most of the real action occurs at school/campus, district/system, and state levels. Affecting change there is a considerably more diffuse enterprise, and NCTE has gathered a set of resources at

This weekend at MLA in Austin, I’ll appear on a panel with NCTE Executive Director, Emily Kirkpatrick, with MLA Executive Director Rosemary Feal, and with Roland Green, MLA President. I’ll share my remarks, but I’m most interested in the relationship between the national and local levels.

From Denver,




Back to Convention, Forward to New Year

Back to the Convention, Forward to the New Year

Grove Postcard FrontDecember 20, 2015

With the holiday season swirling round, I hope not to overstay, like a bad fruitcake, this visit to your screen.

For 6000 NCTE members, the Minneapolis Convention seems now both yesterday and a season past. Like many others, I had the great fortune to meet our featured speakers individually. Alison Bechdel talked about her English teacher mother attending NCTE. She shared a paper that her mother had red-inked into submission, along with some of her comics and observations about the genre she chose.

Dave Eggers told a fundoug and dave eggers - 1ny/poignant story of a young teen boy with a vision-occluding zit who audaciously proposed giving a speech on bicycling to the inner mantel of the earth (“because it would be downhill all the way”), only to have a remarkable teacher tell him to go for it. That teacher—Eggers’ own high school teacher, Peter Ferry—was in the audience and came to the stage with thunderous applause, where Eggers gave him the wrapped manuscript of his next book.

Chelsea Clinton told how reading as a child motivated her to write It’s Your World (free copies of which she signed for an hour afterwards), a precociousness she illustrated with a letter she wrote in the 1980s to Ronald Reagan.

Right before Bechdel’s talk, I gave the audience postcards and asked them to write: “It’s five years from now. Something has changed that improved literacy teaching and learning. What happened?” 742 members gave me their cards, and I’ve finished mailing back 338 to people who self-addressed them. First, though, I had the postcards transcribed. The responses fall into a number of intriguing categories, which I’ll tell you about down the road, but I was particularly struck by the many responses that imagined a significant reduction in high stakes testing.

Grove Postcard Back
Grove Postcard FrontNot long after the convention, of course, Congress passed and Obama signed a new bill to replace No Child Left Behind. The new Every Student Succeeds Act has hundreds of parts, but a key element is to return many responsibilities to the states, including how they adopt Common Core standards and how and when they administer tests. Whether NCTE members experience these changes as positive ones depends significantly, of course, on what their states choose to do with the latitude they’ve been giving. The NCTE Policy Analysts network will no doubt be busy.

So will the Policy and Advocacy Subcommittee of the Executive Committee. Each year, this group drafts an educational platform for NCTE and issues and strategies for advancing our mission. The subcommittee has been putting more attention on state and local advocacy, efforts. Most policies that affect teachers are developed at school, district, or state levels, a reality that the new ESSA underscores. Advocacy will be central focus at the 2016 CCCC convention and the 2016 Annual Convention.

Two other EC Subcommittees will shape NCTE over the coming year. One of them, “The Vertical Value of NCTE,” is charged with exploring how we can make better use of the vast sweep of an organization distributed into sections, conferences, affiliates, and so on. What connects us? Why might it matter to a middle school teacher that she belongs to the same association as a college professor—and vice versa? What can we accomplish together, for all the arts of language, that more focused groups cannot? I’ve asked this committee to think imaginatively and boldly.

A second EC Subcommittee will focus on “The Public Perceptions of NCTE.” We’ve historically done a fine job fostering among members and the profession the best current philosophies, research, and pedagogies about literacy in all guises. However, we’ve been perhaps less intentional in thinking how best to engage the American public itself: parents and the larger citizenry, even our students. The line between “publics” and “policymakers” is hardly bright and distinct. But I’ve asked this committee to set aside policymakers—school boards, departments of education, elected officials, and the like—and focus on those who aren’t officially authorized to make funding and other decisions.

From Denver,
Doug Hesse


snow in Denver - 1

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