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I've launched my Spring 2014 courses with a new WordPress theme. It's been a long time coming. While I started my install of a Network WordPress running courses in the Twenty Ten theme, I have resisted the move to X-Eleven, X-Twelve, X-Thirteen.  Laziness?

I don't know, really.  It can't quite be laziness. Customizing sites with a theme requires production of a child theme, which IS some work if one wants a color palette that works off a main header graphic.  WordPress installs offer no easy color picker WYSIWYG CSS styling. But perhaps it was inertia.  Twenty Ten was something I could modify (lightly) without too much effort.

Anyway, after four years it seemed time to move on.

The big disappointment for me has been the pseudo-footer widget feature.  I "thought" I'd actually get to write some custom text into the real footer of the WordPress theme, something I had to hard code into the footer.php file with Twenty Ten.  But the "footer" widget isn't really putting content into the footer.  It makes a bogus footer above the real footer.  Think of it as "ankle socks" for the theme.

Not sure how long I'll hang with Twenty Fourteen.

John Carlos and Tommie Smith

"The Silent Protest: Open Hands, Closed Fists, and Composition's Political Turn"

Why run in Mexico and crawl at home?

In 1968, John Carlos and Tommie Smith each raised a gloved, clenched fist during the Olympic medals ceremony as the national anthem played. Gold and silver medalists, the two African-American runners were frustrated by prejudice and racism at home at the same time they were "representing" the US in the Olympics.

John Carlos spoke at the 2013 CCCC. He shared his memories of black-white relations, and his interactions growing up in New York. From neighborhoods full of bars and liquor stores to mistreatment by others. He recounted the time he went to see Malcolm X speak and approached him after his speech. Malcolm X invited John Carlos to follow him around, if he could keep up. And he credits his parents and relatively stable home for much of his character. As he put it, his parents taught him to be "honest and faithful."

His conundrum: To whom should he be honest and faithful? Man or God? A major theme in his talk was the way that man's law is sometimes (often?) in opposition to God's law. Which law does one follow? This is a fascinating perspective on the challenge of following the laws one perceives as unjust. It provides a person with a critical perspective on the laws of the state. At the same time, though, it potentially leads down the path to anarchy.

"When I got on the plane to go from Harlem to Texas, I was John Carlos. The minute I got off the plane my name changed to boy." As he put it, people in Texas had never seen someone with his talent, and they tried to tell him what he could do. This tension brought out the frustration in a man unaccustomed to the kind of full-bore segregation he experienced in Texas and culminated in the events in Mexico City.

Carlos' talk was fascinating precisely because he talked about how he used the celebrity of his athleticism as a "springboard" to advance the cause of social justice and was prepared to suffer the negative reaction to his gesture. I had not realized it, but Carlos explained that he and Tommie Smith thought a great deal about their actions before they did it. They thought through the possible repercussions, considered how to protest, and made a decision about the timing. His "platform" for a statement came from his success as a gold medal runner. The question was whether to use that platform to make a statement or to use it celebrate his athletic achievement.

Would Carlos become just an example that shows that America is a land of opportunity? Or would he become a conduit for channeling African-Americans' frustration with prejudice, racism, and inequality in the US?

I was blown away at our last department meeting when it concluded with a farewell cake and much well-wishing as I prepare to leave York College for a new position at the University of New England in the fall. The cake was beautiful and delicious, and the card everyone signed left me sad to leave my colleagues. They're just wonderful.

Deep took some pictures and sent them to me, and I'm posting them here so I'm reminded of my soon-to-be-former colleagues with each posting.

Cut the CakeMore Cake CuttingSome ColleaguesMore ColleaguesCadyAnn and othersAlan, Sam, Karin (with Dean Meleties in the doorway)A Posed Shot (no smile?)The Cake

A recently published article in Science (April 17, 2009) has me rethinking the notion of "low stakes" writing. The article by Cohen, et al. entitled "Recursive Processes in Self-Affirmation: Intervening to Close the Minority Achievement Gap," reports on the longitudinal effect of low stakes, structured writing on the academic performance of African-American middle school students.

In an effort to counter negative stereotype effects, researchers administered a series of values writing prompts aimed at helping the subjects articulate and affirm their values. "Beginning early in seventh grade, students reflected on an important personal value, such as relationships with friends and family or musical interests, in a series of structured writing assignments." One fascinating aspect of the study is that the writing was not directly connected to academic pursuits, or to the development of communication competencies. Most important, it seems, is the payoff!

The intervention appears to have had amazing consequences. "First, early poor performance was less predictive of later performance and psychological state for affirmed African Americans than for nonaffirmed ones, suggesting that the intervention reset the starting point of a recursive cycle. Second, the affirmation not only benefited GPA, but also lifted the angle of the performance trajectory and thus lessened the degree of downward trend in performance characteristic of a recursive cycle. Third, the affirmation's benefits were most evident among low-achieving African Americans. These are the children most undermined by the standard recursive cycle with its worsening of performance and magnifying of initial differences in performance. Fourth, the affirmation prevented the achievement gap from widening with time. Fifth, treatment boosters were not needed to sustain its impact into Year 2."

Who would have thought that brief, structured, values writing assignments could have such academic career-altering effects?

My own pedagogy has tended not to explore the ground on which the prompts in this study are built. Needless to say I'm rethinking some of my own practice in light of this work. These seemingly low stakes prompts, assignments with little or now direct connection to students' grades in a course, are anything but low stakes when one considers their impact on long term academic performance.