Are Grades Coercive?

Dear Shane,


I’m ashamed and horrified that I haven’t made a contribution to these pages for, like, five months. The ball has been in my court all this time. We’ve gone through some changes, what with your moving to a new institution, but I’m the one sitting in my customary place. The issue is not my coping (or failing to cope) with change, but rather, the daunting nature of the question you have put before us. You have asked, Shane, “Are grades inherently coercive?” I would love to say, “It depends on how you, the teacher, use them.” But however intimate and humane the teacher-student relationship, both parties are functionaries in the educational system, and the system uses grades without regard to any personal motivation that might be applied to them. In a sense this is as it should be since the teacher student relationship is not “personal” in the usual sense of the term. However, we don’t have a good term for interactions of persons other than “personal interaction”—“interpersonal action” doesn’t seem quite right. The reason that we have a problem, the reason that you and I maintain (sporadically) this blog, is that persons can and must interact ethically while a system, being impersonal, cannot.


Read more…

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Shane Rambles about Conferencing

November 7, 2013 1 comment

Well howdy-do, Greg!

I’m finally back with a brand new letter/ post/ ramble. We (mostly you) have been writing a great deal about Habermas and how he plays into our whole theory of Communicative Education. This past week, you asked me to take us into the realm of practicality with a post on conferencing, as it was one of the very first things we presented way back at TYCA-GA. We presented on conferencing straight out of the gate because we both (I think) believe it to be the ideal teacher-student interaction.

Before I hit that, Habermas identifies the three elements of communicative action: sincerity, factuality, and ethics. I would say that these three things play huge roles in the interaction that takes place between teacher and student during a conference. I call on this old visual aid that we drafted about a year and a half ago:

Habermas with Greg 1162013 93402 PM.bmp

First, I think conferencing allows for Read more…

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Greg on How We Habermas

October 20, 2013 1 comment

Dear Shane,

I ended my last post with my favorite quotation from Jürgen Habermas, about how emancipation is only possible within “an already accustomed communicative way of life.”  So now would be a good time, I hope, for me to spell out for the world what you already know, namely how we have adapted Habermas’s thought to the educational enterprise.  Once upon a time we made the disclaimer in writing that we didn’t consider ourselves to be experts in Habermas, a statement that the critics were all over like white on rice.  So, okay, we’re a heckuva lot more expert about H than most people are.  What we were really trying to get at is that Habermas has been wildly prolific for five decades and has produced a body of work comprehensive as only that of a German scholar can be.  Moreover, Habermas has proven himself more willing than any other famous intellectual that I know of to respond to criticism and to change his way of thinking if it has been shown to be in error.  The bottom line is that we draw upon the work that is generally considered Habermas’s most comprehensive, the Theory of Communicative Action, and we employ those insights and conclusions that we regard as most applicable to education:

  1. That human social interaction is, at its most basic and its most extensive, verbal interaction.
  2. That interaction aims primarily at carrying out actions.
  3. That certain conditions apply if interactions are to be both ethically right and practically effective.


  1. Education consists fundamentally of verbal interactions among teachers and students.
  2. Education is oriented almost exclusively toward the action of the student’s learning.
  3. The teacher is responsible for establishing a situation in which participants cooperatively carry out that action.

Beyond his analysis of interpersonal activity, Habermas also recognizes in society another tendency for the mobilization of action, which he terms system.  Abstract, impersonal institutional structures and almost animistic “market forces” pervade government, economy, and culture.  Among the biggest problems facing education Read more…

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Greg completely clarifies freedom in the real world

October 11, 2013 Leave a comment

Dear Shane,

Your innocent reference to Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus, which I promise to let go of soon, has gotten lodged in my brain, and I must disclose why.  I used to work for a high school principal who liked to describe teaching as a Sisyphean task.  He was one of those little Robespierres who wanted his subordinates to think of him as first among equals.  And he thought that existentialism was hip and edgy a good half-century after Camus.  He didn’t seem to notice (or perhaps to care) how unseemly it is for the boss to inform the workers that their job is absurd and that moreover they should embrace the absurdity of it.  What really pisses me off about Camus’s interpretation is that his recourse to individual or internal revolt serves the interests of tyrannical power, like little Robespierre, not those of the individual who is suffering through the absurd situation.  Indeed, factory owners should require workers to chant, “We must imagine Sisyphus happy.”  Beyond that, to any teacher or administrator who regards the educational enterprise as pointless drudgery, I would offer the following explanation: shut up, you selfish bastard.

I’ve worked in a factory, and let me tell you, if you progress to the point at which the work becomes drudgery, you’re doing pretty well.  Up to that point, it’s Chaplin’s Modern Times: scrambling to keep up with the machinery and enduring the wrath of one’s coworkers, to say nothing of the wrath of the supervisor.  But the existentialists are right that as individuals we are existentially, radically free.  As Sartre points out somewhere, even facing a firing squad you can always say no.  On the other hand, recognizing that a situation sucks isn’t exactly a soul-fulfilling anagnorisis.  (Anagnorisis, I state for Read more…

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Shane Rambles about Education as Social Interaction

September 20, 2013 1 comment


During our last conversation—and many conversations before that—you asked me if education is social interaction. I then looked back at your blog post from last week titled “The Ethics of Social Interaction.” I was looking, like the student on his cell phone, for a definition of social interaction, and I didn’t really find one. I found only an outline of how one person should treat another when he or she interacts with that other socially.

You recalled Kant’s thought. Here is my re-summarization of that thought. People should not treat one another as instruments or tools to be used in the achieving of a greater goal—a means to an end. For example, a head coach should not see his player as simply a way of reaching the championship. Instead, he should see his player as a player. My first question for you is this, Greg: What does it mean to view others as “an end in him- or herself”? In my brain, “ends” are goals. Maybe it’s better to think of an “end” as a product, though. I definitely see how people shouldn’t be seen as instruments, but I’m not sure how it can be good to view them as “ends” in themselves, either. Or is there a definition that I should know that I don’t of the word “end” (tight end? the end? ending? Ender’s Game?)?

I’ll start here even though I’ve already Read more…

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The ethics of social interaction

September 10, 2013 2 comments

Dear Shane,

During our last conversation I recalled Kant’s formulation that a person should never treat another person as merely a means to an end but also an end in him- or herself.  Now, Kant would roll over in his grave if we turned this statement into a dogma.  And indeed, I think the statement, allowing for translation and my clumsy recollection/paraphrase, could stand some strengthening.  The situation, it seems to me, is not one of “not only/but also” but rather “never/exclusively”: a rational being should never be treated as a means but always and exclusively as an end.  I am aware of myself as a subject, and I am aware of myself as a being of incalculable value.  That time when I was 11 and almost drowned at the altar boys’ picnic convinced me once and for all that my life is precious and to me, infinitely precious.  A million other episodes in my life, pleasant or unpleasant as the case may be, have told me the same story.  But here’s the point: you have told me the same story and the thousands of other people I have encountered in my life have told me the same story.  You’ve never been an altar boy, or watched as your daughter married a Welshman, or missed a fly ball in the outfield because you were looking at ants (well, maybe you have experienced this last one).  But in the relatively short time of a few years we have known each other, you have given me to understand that you know yourself to be a being of infinite value, just as I do, even though our particular experiences differ.  The issue is not that you know something, but Read more…

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Reflections on TYCA-SE 2012

Hello out there, blogosphere!

Greg and I are back from this year’s conference of the Two-Year College English Association – Southeast (Click their logo to go to the TYCA-SE homepage). I really just can’t say enough about how important this organization is to me. Before I found TYCA, I had depended on the National Writing Project (NWP) for my professional development.  The NWP was so so great, and I will be forever in debt to the NWP as well as the Blackwater Writing Project in Valdosta, GA. But, as you may or may not know, NWP was federally funded professional development that was cut, along with Reading is Fundamental, in last year’s budget compromises. When NWP’s funding was cut last year, I was sitting in sessions at TYCA-SE 2011. Little did I know at that moment that I had already found a source of PD that would rival the NWP.I met so many awesome people then, and I hope those professional relationships continue to thrive.

This year’s meeting in Virginia Beach was another spectacular entry in the TYCA-SE history. The temperature on the beach hovered around 75 degrees all week which was awesome, even though I only got out there for a quick run on one afternoon. The conference also offered Greg and I an opportunity to meet more of our southeastern colleagues and share our work on our theory of communicative education.

We spoke in a pretty well attended, late Friday afternoon session about the work we’re doing with Habermas’s theory of communicative action and how it relates to the educational enterprise. We focused this session on establishing trust in the teacher-student relationship, which is at the heart of communicative education since without trust, mutual understanding is pretty much unachievable. I won’t repeat it all here, since you can dig into it all in the podcasts, but I will say that it was a really great conversation.

It was really nice meeting new and supportive voices in our field. I know some of you are following along with the blog now, and I’m sorry we’re dropping the ball on those special Virginia Beach podcasts. We’ve been working hard on drafting an article during our spring break, and I am definitely still playing catch-up (mostly on sleep). We will get all six (soon to be seven) podcasts uploaded soon.

And we’ll see you all next year in South Carolina!



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