By Peter Smagorinsky
When I encourage friends in the field to take to the keyboard to make an impression on public and policy opinion, I often hear something like, “Well, I wrote something once and sent it to the New York Times, but they turned it down, and I haven’t tried since.” My rejoinder is that the Times is one of many outlets. I’d like to suggest other ways that people can become involved as public intellectuals in ways that don’t involve the sort of entrée that the most exclusive journalistic venues often rely on in selecting their contributors.
One is to establish a relationship with a local newspaper. For me, it’s Maureen Downey’s Get Schooled blog in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Because I’m on the faculty at our state’s namesake university, I perhaps have an advantage in becoming a contributor, but Maureen will accept any well-written essay on education, including those written by high school kids. Similarly, my friend Michael Moore of Georgia Southern University writes a monthly piece for the Savannah Daily News. I imagine that many other editors of city newspapers and magazines would welcome thoughtful pieces in education, the one institution that binds communities together. Alan Brown of Wake Forest University appears to be developing such a relationship with the Greensboro, NC News & Record, with his first op-ed piece given prominent recognition on Diane Ravitch’s blog. Whether he becomes a regular or ad-hoc contributor, this forum provides him with a voice that reaches well beyond the county that serves as his platform.
Another approach is to produce a regular blog. Chris Goering of the University of Arkansas, for instance, coauthors the EduSanity blog with Jason L. Endacott, with the blog set up for subscribers and with social media connections available for people to share alerts. NCLE has established space for the Conference on English Education, and the NCTE Commission on Writing Teacher Education is launching this blog space as a forum for discussion. With publication space increasingly available, university faculty are running out of reasons not to write for wider audiences.
For people writing more occasionally, in addition to the local paper or magazine, patch.com websites are widely available and welcome the views of local writers. Kristen Turner of Fordham University, among the organizers of the NCTE Commission on Writing Teacher Education blog and a community stalwart in the New Jersey Strong organization, wrote a lovely essay from her perspective as a parent that was published in the http://mendham-chester.patch.com/. Essays published in web-only venues have the potential to be spread across the Internet; although the initial readership might not match that of what appears in the New York Times, a quality essay will be read, tweeted, liked on Facebook, and otherwise find a much wider audience that one might assume.
Another initiative that I like comes from Anne Whitney at Penn State, who invests her professional time in a writing group of local teachers for whom she has arranged monthly publishing opportunities in the local newspaper. Her efforts are designed to empower teachers to express themselves, rather than to promote her own ideas. In a related initiative, Steve Zemelman of National Louis University has set up Teachers Speak Up, a more national forum for teachers, and I hope that teachers are willing to voice their opinions in spite of administrative intimidation to keep their mouths shut.
The possibilities I’ve listed are those with which I’m familiar, and I hope that others emerge for scholars who hope to participate in the public debate about education, both through their writing and via video media. It does involve risks, given that many forums (e.g., Maureen Downey’s AJC Get Schooled blog) allow anonymous commentators to bash and revile those with whom they disagree with no accountability for their opinions. I know some who have shied away from writing in her space because they do not want the accompanying vitriol and personal attacks that cowardly critics hiding behind pseudonyms may unleash upon them. I have become resolved not to be bullied out of the discussion by people so pusillanimous that they fear signing their names to their bold opinions.
That’s what they hope will happen, and I can’t give them that satisfaction or be driven from the debate. I hope that whatever forum you use to take a public stance, you’ll look past the petty and mean-spirited response your writing might invite and soldier on.
Peter Smagorinsky is Distinguished Research Professor of English Education at The University of Georgia. He is the recipient of the Sylvia Scribner Award from AERA in 2012, and at the 2013 NCTE Convention will be presented the David H. Russell Research Award for Distinguished Research in the Teaching of English for Vygotsky and literacy research: A methodological framework.