Tuesday, May 20, 2014


In the news,  in popular publications, and  in other media in general, teachers are often categorized as practitioners.

 A variety of models and metaphors are routinely applied to teaching and include education as a science,  an art,  a craft, a business or a hospital or place of healing.  All of these models speak  to us and offer ways of organizing our thinking about our work as teachers. All of these models position us and our students in various ways, both negative and positive. (Metaphors we live by as teachers and as people will be the topic of an upcoming post.)

In the Columbus Area Writing Project  2014 Summer Institute, as we work with a new cohort of educators, one of our goals will be to help them see themselves, not only as practitioners, but also as intellectuals--as scholars.

Teachers are not usually referred to as intellectuals or scholars, unless we teach at the higher-education level  and our work is accomplished on a university campus.

So what does it mean to be an intellectual?
What does it mean for a teacher to be an intellectual?

Considering the role and work of teachers,  wrestling with these questions in a previous post, I Used to Think... Now I Think, I wrote:

I  now understand that teachers are intellectuals--I am an intellectual.   And in that capacity and role, I must gain and maintain knowledge of scholarly and professional literature, engage in action research, critically analyze any policies--classroom, district, state and federal--that affect education, my teaching, and, most importantly, my students. I construct my knowledge through dialogue with other educational professionals and colleagues, and must make a commitment to political and social action.

Henry Giroux, in Teachers as Intellectuals: Toward a Critical Pedagogy of Learning,  pushes us toward a pedagogy that is "not only about teaching practices but also involves a recognition of the cultural politics that such practices support." He calls on us to examine knowledge and the context in which it is situated:

...the teacher as transformative intellectual must be committed to the following: teaching as an emancipatory practice; the creation of schools as democratic public spheres; the restoration of a community of shared progressive values; the fostering of a common public discourse linked to the democratic imperatives of equality and social justice.  (Giroux, 1988, xviii-xix)

He further challenges us as teachers not just to enter the conversation to criticize others, but to critically evaluate our own work and actions, as well:

The political and ideological climate does not look favorable for teachers at the moment. But it does offer them the challenge to join in a public debate with their critics as well as the opportunity to engage in a much needed self-critique regarding the nature and purpose of teacher preparation, in-service teacher programs, and the dominant forms of classroom teaching .  (Giroux, 1988 121-122)

Although Teachers as Intellectuals was published in 1988,  Giroux's ideas are applicable in today's education situation, and could have been written yesterday.

For  more discussion of  Giroux's work, Nancy Lester's article Teachers  Becoming "Transformative Intellectuals" (English Education, Dec. 1993) is helpful, as she discusses how his work influenced her own, and how she provided for her students moving toward taking on the role of intellectuals with the hope they will do the same for others:

The assumptions, recognitions, and connections which ( my students) have exposed and created from searching their own learning histories form the basis of their growing educational philosophies or ideologies. These will, no doubt, contribute to how these "transformative intellectuals" will understand and work with their students. 
Through powerful small group discussion, autobiography, consideration of the hidden curriculum, the language of schooling and the inevitable "yes, buts", Lester encouraged her students to engage in the thinking and talking and writing that set them on their way to becoming intellectuals.

Lester's article can be accessed through NCTE files or through JSTOR.

What does it mean for a teacher to be an intellectual?

Much of writing, particularly scholarly or academic writing (as well as reading and talking), calls on us to respond to the ideas, the theories, the arguments of others-- to respond or address what others have said.

As scholars, as intellectuals, we want to be aware of and enter into this ongoing conversation.

Joseph Harris, in Rewriting: How To Do Things With Texts, expresses this idea as follows:

In the academy you will often be asked to situate your thoughts about a text or an issue in relation to what others have written about it.  Indeed, I'd argue that this interplay of ideas defines academic writing--that whatever else they may do, intellectuals almost always write in response to the work of others.

As we enter the ongoing conversation, perhaps for the first time, in both oral and written discourse, it helps to know the moves that others are making as they present their ideas, issues and specific points.

Resources are available that help us make the intellectual moves that will allow us to enter the ongoing professional, academic, political, and social  conversations that surrounds us. Knowing these traditional moves used by those participating will allow us, not only to enter into the dialogue, but to actively participate, as well.

Several of my favorites will be great starting points:


Teachers are intellectuals.
Everyone can be an intellectual.
Join the conversation today.

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

One way  to think about your work is to consider how you entered your profession, your current beliefs and stances, your model of working. Reflect on these and write a  exploratory essay of reflecting your thoughts.

If you are a teacher, think about your own schooling experience.  How does this history inform your own beliefs about teaching and your current practice? Write a personal narrative or short autobiography connecting your experience with your current practice and professional life.

If you are not a teacher by profession, think about your own schooling experience and consider how this history informs your beliefs about educational systems and current educational policies.
Write a political essay  or short autobiography connecting your experience to current educational (or other) policies.

Choose a current issue in which you are interested.  Research this issue, locating articles, texts, and online resources.  Write about this issue, responding to what " they say" with what "you say."

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