NCTE Presidential Address 2016

(Opening two pages of 16-page address, delivered 11/17/16 in Atlanta)



My talk begins in sorrow and ends in hope. It starts with a blunt question: “How do we teach reading and writing at a moment when traditional assumptions about the effective use of language seem so naïve, so wrong?” How can we possibly teach when evidence and reasoning, eloquence and ethics seem utterly optional?

Let me be concrete. Consider a picture taken November 7, by Reuters photographer Jonathan Ernst, in Minneapolis. It contains a multimodal composition, consisting of T-shirt and six words in American Typewriter font, white and red, caps and lowercase: “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required.” These six words, and a host of similar tweets, memes, blogs, spray paints, stickers, and so forth have apparently been as effective as editorials, articles, and extended analyses.

Here’s the deal. I’m the father of two journalists. This shirt implies lynching my daughters. You may say, “Now, calm down, Doug. It’s just words, just humor. Paige and Monica are safe.” But I can’t assume that some mentally twisted Timothy McVeigh-grade patriot isn’t emboldened by declarations that writers deserve death.  In July, I was in Munich, where I saw an exhibit filled with posters and written artifacts from that city in the 1930s.

But let me suppose that this shirt is “just words,” just a guy havin’ some fun, to the delight of onlookers, near and far. That suggests two conclusions that are fairly chilling to teachers .

Conclusion 1: We live at a time where more than a few citizens deem it reasonable, even desirable, not only to censor, but even to suppress information.

Or Conclusion 2. We live at a time where language is perceived to have no necessary relation to reality.

It’s hard to decide which prospect is worse. What does an English teacher, a language arts teacher, a composition teacher, a literature teacher, a teacher of new teachers—in short, an NCTE member—do with the gap between the obvious power of texts like this picture, and pronouncements about the kind of writing deemed to produce readiness:

“Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.”  (Common Core Standards, Grade 11/12 Writing Standards)

How can we not be cynical? How can our students not find thesis and support but a quaint custom of schooling? I loathe false distinctions between the academic world and the real world, but the school world does look like reason, with patient lessons against logical fallacies. The real world, in contrast, is pathos, where truth matters less than results.

I want to be clear what I’m talking about, which is the state of language and not about elections or the state of politics, per se. I leave that to George Orwell.  I’ll just say that whatever our individual views, we collectively can’t help but feel  lost after the past year’s discourse.