What Does It Mean To Be A Public Intellectual In The Classroom? #AERA16

Jose Vilson Education, Jose

This past weekend, I spent time at the American Education Researchers Association Conference in Washington, DC, a strange position for a classroom educator to be in with the world’s top researchers along with 18,000 participants of all stripes coming together under a huge convention center. It’s the 100th anniversary of a social experiment for putting together as many edu-nerds under one space as possible and waiting for the au courant scatter plots and linguistic nomenclature to emerge from the ether. As someone who spends most of his work time in the classroom, I can understand how that environment can be unnerving.

Yet, I felt a sense of calm come over me, mainly because it feels like, in my own way, I had been doing this work for years.

More than a handful of people at the AERA16 Conference called me a public intellectual, and, while I don’t get gassed, I appreciate the nod. Too often, I felt like, while this country doesn’t generally respect education in the way it should, the idea of expertise usually falls in the realm of professors and researchers from outside the classroom. Thus, it’s always humbling when people do recognize the efforts of classroom practitioners and the work we do to uplift children in a profound way, even more so when we share this passion aloud and unapologetically.

Which brings me to this weekend.

Profs. Terrenda White and Travis Bristol invited me to AERA16 to discuss democracy around teachers of color. As I heard the rest of my fellow panelists rock the mic (and that, they did), I knew I needed to come with something different. I wanted to speak on my own, informal research on the decimation of teachers of color since former mayor Michael Bloomberg and former NYC schools chancellor Joel Klein took the reigns of the largest public school system and made visible white supremacy, but no. Instead, I decided to talk about next steps, and specifically what the people in the audience can do to help us as educators and vice versa.

At this point, one of the most important functions that we as educators (specifically of color) need from professors and researchers doing this critical race work: we need the language to read these people.

I don’t mean that we need literature. We need the actual research that helps us tell our stories better, and conversely, that helps us put words to the hogwash and absurdities that crosses our desks almost daily. If nothing else, research is really good for talking back at what’s not working for our students. The average non-edu-geek educator doesn’t have the mechanisms by which to deconstruct their own experiences, and organizing around a real edu-resistance is most necessary. Critically conscious teachers sit through too many professional development sessions, read too many articles from so-called edu-experts, and listen to too many of our own colleagues spit nonsense about accountability and standards without oases of authentic policies and pedagogies. Too often, people coming to us are “former teachers” celebrated by institutions all over for having left their communities behind.

To that end, the idea of a public intellectual is mired by our country’s reluctance to critically engage the masses, magnified when we introduce issues of race, class, and gender.

On my path to critical consciousness (because it’s never over), I got lucky enough to find the words of Imani Perry, who Dr. Cornel West mentioned as a real public intellectual when he got into a quasi-beef with author Ta-Nehisi Coates. She said the following words that hit me like a ton of bricks:

I’m not a public intellectual. Not in the way people generally mean it. I’m conceding their definition for the sake of clarity. I’m an intellectual. I’m a scholar. I’m a teacher. I like to talk to people outside of universities. I believe in justice and kindness. I believe in the freedom movement. I believe in organizing. I believe in witnessing. I believe in love.

I was floored by this, so I asked her to say more:

I have always considered the Black public intellectual tradition to have included all kinds of work scholars do outside of formal academic institutions. Like how DuBois published the Brownie Books for children or Patricia Hill Collins working for community groups, or those who teach in prisons or do adult education or do civil rights litigation or organizing as well as those who do journalism. There are legions of examples in the tradition. But folks today use the term “public intellectual” to mean television punditry, quips, cleverness and a platform for which a degree merely stands as a stamp of approval not necessarily attached to any of the areas one claims competence or knowledge to speak on. I never want to be attached to attention seeking as an ambition. Doing meaningful work for the public good and the production of knowledge are my aspirations.

We are charged to do this thing we call “the work,” but we don’t always get to name it. I’m fortunate and blessed to have a career that puts me squarely in the presence of children at one of the most critical moments of their lives. I don’t consider most of what I do a chore and would probably use any extra given time to grade and plan for my students. Even my most vexing students have a charm that comes with adolescence, which makes my job that much more enjoyable. I also recognize as one of the 3% (male teachers of color), I have an obligation to make sure the 145 students in my charge get what they need from me and make it different from what our public school system demands … or doesn’t.

My work, like so many of my K-12 colleagues (Renee Moore, Valencia Clay, Kelly Wickham, and Xian Barrett to name a few), hopes to push other educators to consider their critical consciousness in the classroom as a means of public service and as a means of subversion and resistance. The awesome workshop at #AERA16 was but one manifestation of what happens when like-minded individuals highlight institutional racism in a profound way. And, as I’ve learned from too many of my fellow scholars from pre-K through higher ed, it’s less about what happens in front of the cameras and major websites, but the interactions and relationships we have with others in the matters of uplift and liberation.

Let’s reveal that language and democratize this space henceforth.

photo c/o