About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Teaching As a Way of Seeing

             “The thing I love about Ms. Marovich,” says Hazel of her automotive technology instructor, “is that when she looks at you, she sees the finished product.” What a remarkable kind of seeing Hazel describes: An act of perception that envisions growth and that helps make that growth possible.
            Over the past several years, I have been interviewing a wide range of people, from students in high school and community college to professionals in their fifties and sixties, about experiences in or out of school that had a transformative effect on their education, that changed the way they thought about school and what school could enable them to do with their lives. A number of the people I talked to used some variation of Hazel’s statement about seeing, some visual metaphor of validation.
            A student in a Licensed Practical Nursing Program praises an instructor she would go to when she felt overwhelmed. The instructor told her that “she could see it in me that I was meant to do this,” and encouraged her to not only complete the LPN program but to continue toward a Registered Nurse’s degree, which she did.
            “I was a strange kid,” a high school English teacher says reflecting back on his time in twelfth grade, “but not to [his English teacher] Mrs. Howard. She saw me the way I wanted to be seen. It changed my life. Every day I work to see kids the way they want to be seen.”
            A middle school teacher starts talking to a boy serving detention and senses a “hunger” that leads her to invite him onto the school’s fledgling debate team. When I ask how she senses that hunger, she says, “by talking to someone and answering their questions. You can see it in their eyes.”
            A high school Spanish teacher raises the issue of college to a junior whose energies are more invested in soccer than academics, but who has a way with people and exhibits a certain savvy as he navigates eleventh grade. The teacher follows his instincts and connects the young man to a college bridge program. Looking back on it, our soccer player, now a graduate student, says of that teacher, “He saw potential in me that I didn’t see in myself.”
            These teachers seem to operate with an expansive sense of human ability and are particularly alert to signs of that ability, signs that might be faint or blurred by societal biases or by a student’s reticence or distracting behavior—or that the student him or herself might barely comprehend. Through the way they teach, through mentoring, or through some other intervention, these teachers help develop the abilities they perceive. We don’t hear a lot about this powerfully humane element of teaching, for so much current discussion of teacher education and development is focused elsewhere: from creating measures of effectiveness to mastering district or state curriculum frameworks. These are important issues to be sure, but they have crowded out so much else that makes teaching a richly humanistic intellectual pursuit.
            One last thought. To repurpose a phrase of Walt Whitman’s, education contains multitudes. There are endless treasures of human experience to be found within the classroom, so we could fruitfully continue the present discussion inside the schoolhouse alone. But given our moment in history, it’s not much of a stretch to think of how the kind of affirming perception I’ve been discussing resonates beyond education with current social movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, movements challenging perceptions that dehumanize rather than affirm. Also relevant is the portrayal of refugees and immigrants promulgated by the Trump administration, converting demonizing perception into heartless public policy. In times like these, perception attuned to ability along with a commitment to foster that ability becomes not only an educational endeavor but a civic and moral one as well.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Words Matter

            It was a brief spot, just under 90 seconds, on National Public Radio’s mid-day news program, “All Things Considered.” A post-script to a longer story. You would miss it if you walked momentarily to another room. So I want to dwell on it here, for it was simply, calmly powerful.
            The NPR reporters had been covering the awful events at the U.S.-Mexico border, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ narrowing of the criteria for seeking asylum and the separating of children from their parents. These actions have been defended by various members of the Trump administration and by President Trump himself with their typical word salad of denials, deflections, counter punches, and lies. One element in this linguistic barrage is the clam that child-separation is not an administration policy, but the result of regrettable laws established under previous administrations. We are a country built on laws, they claim, and we have to follow the laws. This is unfortunate for the families, but we have no choice. No matter that over the last few months, key administration actors, including Chief of Staff John Kelly, said on the record that family separation is in fact being used as a deterrent to migrants. No, insisted Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, on June 17, 2018 “we do not have a policy of separating families at the border, period.” So here we are with the all-too-familiar Trump fare of contradictions, reversals, and edicts—all delivered with propulsive finality.
            Now to that brief spot on NPR. Host Mary Louise Kelly quoted Secretary Nielsen’s statement and then examined it. Her line of inquiry is worth quoting in full. If you’d like to hear it, click [here].

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Here’s what Secretary Nielsen told NPR’s John Burnett when he interviewed her on May 10 and asked about family separation.

KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: Our policy has not changed in that if you break the law, we will refer you for prosecution.

KELLY: Nielsen went on—if you're an adult with a family and you break the law, you'll be prosecuted. And then she said...

NIELSEN: Operationally, what that means is we will have to separate your family.

KELLY: We will have to separate your family. Previous administrations looked at the same law, though, and decided not to separate families. What the administration argues is that when an adult is prosecuted, they go into federal custody. And any children in tow can't be detained in a federal lockup. So the separation is the result of the new zero tolerance policy, not a policy in and of itself.

Well, we looked it up. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines policy as a course or method of action selected from among alternatives. The Trump administration has selected and is now defending a course of action—in other words, a policy. You can call it semantics, splitting hairs over which word applies. But words matter, which is why NPR is referring to the Trump administration policy of separating families at the U.S. border.

            Political language, as George Orwell reminded us in the middle of the last century, is heavy in distortion and double-speak. The Trump administration does not simply indulge in these linguistic sins; it is built on them. Thankfully, the news media are increasingly calling the administration on their lies and denials. What struck me about this NPR broadcast was that Ms. Kelly also provided listeners with a short course on semantics and logic. Our country needs much more of this, methodologies to help us think and talk clearly in the face of the violent incoherence transmitted daily from the White House.

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Thursday, May 31, 2018

“A Nation at Risk” at 35

At the end of April, 2018, National Public Radio education reporter Anya Kamenetz did a story on the 35th anniversary of the highly influential government report “A Nation at Risk.” Issued by the Department of Education under President Ronald Reagan, the report had a huge impact and shaped the language of education policy to this day. Here are some of the explosive sentences from the opening two paragraphs. You will recognize them, or you will have heard echoes of them:
Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.

[T]he educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people.

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.

We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.

            The diction is urgent, even fevered. Our schools are mediocre and getting worse, and their sorry state is resulting in an erosion of our economic and technological preeminence. The opening sentences build momentum toward an existential threat, the equivalent of a military attack—brought on by ourselves, by our educational failures. It comes as no surprise that these passages were quoted and quoted again in countless political speeches, opinion pieces, and institutional position papers.
            Support for this catastrophic assessment comes a few pages later in the form of a list of thirteen “Indicators of the Risk.” These indicators included the numbers of college students or military personnel needing remedial instruction in mathematics or English, percentages of Americans who are functionally illiterate, and the like. Over half of the thirteen indicators concern declines in international or national standardized test scores, such as those for the SAT. The emphasis on decline is important here, for it supports a central claim of “A Nation at Risk” which is that we were once dominant but have lost our way. This notion of loss, of a fall from a golden age is a powerful trope in our nation’s social policy, beautifully articulated some time ago by David K. Cohen in the Harvard Educational Review.
            So there it is. 1983 and we are doomed if we don’t do something fast and decisively. Erosion. Decline. Loss of Power. Assault. An act of war—against ourselves. Interestingly, throughout the rest of the report, there is little of this apocalyptic language. While the authors continue to make some questionable claims and offer some debatable solutions, there are also calls to boost the teaching profession, to increase school funding, to promote “life-long learning,” and to assure “a solid high-school education” for all. But few people read the full report. What was picked up was the dire language of the opening and—this is hugely important—that language not only took on a life of its own, it also distorted the way many reform-minded folk implemented the recommendations of the report that had promise.
            From the beginning there was trenchant criticism of “A Nation at Risk,” analyzing the report’s hyperbolic language and gaps in the logic of its claims and, of key interest, the problems with the report’s evidence. One simple and obvious example: A decline in SAT test scores results from increasing numbers of people taking the test, people who, a generation earlier, would not have considered college. So, yes, the average score might dip a few points, but because a wider percentage of the population was aspiring toward higher education. (For an excellent early compilation of the criticism see the 1985 collection, The Great School Debate, edited by Beatrice and Ronald Gross.) It is noteworthy that there were several other government reports written after “A Nation at Risk” that offered a different assessment of American education, but they received much less attention and, in fact, one was initially suppressed. Maybe we weren’t teetering on the brink after all.
            OK back now to Anya Kamenetz’s story on the 35th anniversary of “A Nation at Risk.” Either for this story or for an earlier project, Kamentz interviewed several of the authors of “A Nation at Risk” and found that they did not set out to conduct an objective investigation of the state of American education, but came to the task convinced that schools were in serious decline as global competition was heating up, and therefore their job was to sound the alarm and, as one author put it, get education “on the front page.” They succeeded, big time.
            Kamenetz quotes James Guthrie, a well-known educational researcher who more recently reanalyzed “A Nation at Risk” and concludes that the report’s authors “cooked the books,” presenting only data that supported their bleak vision of America’s schools. But Guthie adds that “seldom, maybe never, has a public report been so wrong and done so much good,” for the alarm bells focused the nation’s attention on education. Guthrie is alluding to the sad fact that it is very hard to get the attention of policy makers and the public—there are so many issues competing for airtime, and a host of factors, from bias to saturation, can keep a particular issue from registering. One tactic activists have is to frame their issue as a crisis—which is exactly what the authors of “A Nation at Risk” did. Educational researchers like David Berliner and Bruce Biddle have forcefully argued that the crisis was “manufactured,” but the authors of the report would argue in return—and James Guthrie agrees—that drastic measures were needed to put education on policy makers’ radar. Education analyst Marc Tucker picks up from Kamenetz’s NPR story to take issue with Guthrie’s end-justifies-the-means logic and to further argue that the reforms sparked by “A Nation at Risk” have had “a profoundly malign effect on American education,” not the positive effects Guthrie claims. (Tucker’s blog is behind a pay wall, but you can get a good summary of it in Diane Ravitch’s May 12, 2018 post.)
            I agree with Tucker and the other critics of “A Nation at Risk” and the policies it spawned. But isn’t it also true that there are big problems with American education. It is terribly unjust that so many poor children, children of color, and immigrant children receive a sub-par education. It is a serious personal liability for an adult to not be able to read and write beyond a rudimentary level, and if tens of millions of us have a good deal of trouble reading and writing, that has significant civic and economic ramifications. These and other problems with education in the United States should cause outrage and lead to action. But one hard lesson learned from “A Nation at Risk” is that the way problems are represented has major consequences. This issue of language and representation sometimes gets lost in debates about the benefits or harm resulting from specific education reforms, but I think it is centrally important. It was one of the concerns that drove Possible Lives, published twelve years downstream from “A Nation at Risk”:
Our national discussion about public schools is despairing and dismissive, and it is shutting down our civic imagination... We hear—daily, it seems—that our students don’t measure up, either to their predecessors in the United States or to their peers in other countries, and that, as a result, our position in the global economy is in danger. We are told, by politicians, by pundits, that our cultural values, indeed our very way of life is threatened…

We seem beguiled by a rhetoric of decline, this ready store of commonplaces about how awful our schools have become. “America’s schools are the least successful in the Western world,” declare the authors of a book on the global economy. “Face it, the public schools have failed,” a bureau chief for a national news magazine tells me, offhandedly. “The kids in the Los Angeles Unified School District are garbage,” a talk-radio host exclaims.

There are many dangers in the use of such language. It blinds us to the complex lives lived out in the classroom. It pre-empts careful analysis of one of the nation’s most significant democratic projects. And it engenders a mood of cynicism and retrenchment, preparing the public mind for extreme responses: increased layers of testing and control, denial of new resources—even the assertion that money doesn’t affect a school’s performance—and the curative effects of free market forces via vouchers and privatization. What has been seen historically as a grand republican venture is beginning to be characterized as a failed social experiment, noble in intention but moribund now, perhaps headed toward extinction. So, increasing numbers of people who can afford to don’t even consider public schools as an option for their children, and increasingly we speak, all of us, about the schools as being in decline. This is what is happening to our public discussion of education, to our collective vision of the schools…

If we try to organize schools and create curriculum based on an assumption of failure and decay, then we make school life a punitive experience. If we think about education largely in relation to economic competitiveness, then we lose sight of the fact that school has to be about more than economy. If we determine success primarily in terms of test scores, then we ignore the social, moral, and aesthetic dimensions of teaching and learning—and, as well, we’ll miss those considerable intellectual achievements which aren’t easily quantifiable. If we judge one school according to the success of another, we could well diminish the particular ways the first school serves its community. In fact, a despairing vision will keep us from fully understanding the tragedies in our schools, will reduce their complexity, their human intricacy. We will miss the courage that sometimes accompanies failure, the new directions that can emerge from burn-out, the desire that pulses in even the most depressed schools and communities.

            One of the big challenges we have in front of us is how to maintain momentum in addressing the inequities in our education system but to do so in a way that is analytically and linguistically precise. How can we, to the best of our ability, keep focus on the vulnerable and underserved and do so with a mix of urgency and accuracy. A legacy of “A Nation at Risk” is a way of seeing that obscures the careful vision we need when working to improve our schools.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Everyday Gestures of Justice

I have over the years subjected readers of this blog to some very long, even essay-length, posts. This time, I offer my shortest, a reflection on the value of small gestures in our teaching.

Asao Inoue, this year’s chair of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, asked a number of members to write brief (200 words max) reflections on the interrelation of literacy, language, and social justice, a topic of special importance these days. The topic can also be daunting—where to begin?—and in this little piece of writing, I simply wanted to remind us of the impact of the work we do in our classrooms—and especially the small but significant ways we demonstrate commitment and decency.


                  I value the small stuff. The teacher who encourages a hesitant question; who remembers a student’s name outside the classroom; who in discussing a paper suggests a book, a podcast, a movie; who spends an extra five minutes in a conference; who checks in with a student who had difficulty with the last assignment. These are everyday signs of commitment, micro-evidence of care.

                  Over the years, I’ve interviewed a lot of students from kindergarten to adult education, and I’ve been struck by how meaningful the small stuff is to them, particularly to those students who feel out of place and, in some cases, are having a hard time of it. These behaviors register, I think, because of their everydayness, because they seem to flow naturally from who a particular teacher is and therefore are experienced as real, authentic. They signal that you, the student, matter, that your development is valuable, that you belong here.

                  Of course, the big things are important: curriculum, and pedagogy, and professional and political activities beyond the classroom. Of course. But a just and decent world is also created through the moment-by-moment interactions that foster growth and local community.

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Monday, March 5, 2018

A Podcast on Working-class Students and the Purpose of a College Education

"Have You Heard" is a first-rate podcast on education hosted by Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider. Schneider is an historian of education, and Berkshire is a journalist and blogger who has covered education reform for years. Last month they interviewed me on the topic of working-class students and the reasons why they go to college. Berkshire and Schneider do a nice job with production, so I think you'll enjoy this podcast, and I encourage you to check out the many other important topics they have covered.

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Thursday, February 8, 2018

Celebrating Public Education in the Age of Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump

            My dear friend of many years, Deborah Meier, is coming to Los Angeles with the co-author of her new book, veteran teacher and co-founder of Artful Education, Emily Gasoi. Readers of this blog who are in education are familiar with Meier, but for those not in education, Meier is a pioneer in the development of small, innovative, and intellectually rich public schools, work for which she received a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Award” in 1987. Deborah and Emily will be talking about their new book These Schools Belong to You an Me (a riff on Woody Guthrie) at the UCLA Community School, a wonderful K-12 partnership with the Los Angeles Unified School District located in Central Los Angeles. The school’s students are predominantly from Mexican, Central American, or Korean immigrant families. The event is on Feb. 20, 4-7 p.m. (Click here if you would like to attend.)
            As is the case with all of Deborah Meier’s books (see, for example, The Power of Their Ideas and In Schools We Trust), this new one with Emily Gasoi contains analysis and advice useful to teachers and administrators. There is, for example, a substantial treatment of accountability—both a critique of accountability based primarily on standardized tests as well as a discussion with examples of more authentic and multi-dimensional approaches to accountability. The book also contains on-the-ground accounts of working in schools that try to operate democratically, thus providing the reader with practical suggestions and hard-won wisdom about such work.
            But what I most value about These Schools Belong to You and Me—and I think is its greatest strength—is its articulate and passionate affirmation of public schools as foundational democratic institutions. One of the book’s chapters is titled “Falling for Public Education,” and in some ways the book is a loving celebration of the public school written by two people who together have spent over 70 years working in them. Meier and Gasoi know in their bones what the public school can mean to children who attend them, the teachers and administrators who work in them, and the communities that hold them. Their writing is certainly informed by scholarship—and they offer a valuable reading list at the end of the book—but the writing also emerges from deep experience.
            We need to check in on our defining institutions, evaluate them, size them up and, at time, raise them up—remind ourselves what they do for us, the kind of life they make possible. We surely need such evaluation now. Meier and Gasoi write at a time when some schools, public and private, urban and rural, predominantly low-income are not providing good educations for their students; when the dominant remedies for these schools (and for public schools in general) create awful problems of their own; and when the election of 2016 brought with it an existential threat to public education and other democratic institutions. Meier and Gasoi write from this time, naming the multiple threats to public schools, but also trying to articulate a way forward, a vision of the possible.

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Saturday, January 20, 2018

Writing Our Way into the Public Sphere

I took a break over December and will now compensate by posting the world's longest blog. This essay is adapted from a speech I gave at the 2016 meeting of The American Educational Research Association. (It has just been published in the journal Teachers College Record.) Though the speech/essay was written for an education conference, it might be of interest to readers concerned about the communication of specialists' knowledge to the general public and the relationship of research to the public good.


I think it is safe to say that many, even most, people who go into educational research today seek a connection of their work to school and society. They want their work to have some impact, at the least a resonance, with pressing issues in child development, or academic achievement, or education policy, or the history of a school practice, or the very purpose of school itself. More so than with many academic disciplines, there is in our field a desire for relevance and application.

And we as a profession do spend a good deal of effort to assist beginning researchers in realizing that desire, in developing connection to practice, in some cases embedding one’s work in classrooms or communities. This is as it should be, for no field is more central to the social good than education.

How curious it is, then, that though we assist beginning researchers in forging connection, we do almost nothing to help them communicate what they do to people beyond their professional tribe, to broader publics, many of whom have a direct or indirect stake in their work, or would be interested in it if they knew about it. We as a profession are paradoxically webbed deeply in society yet, in many ways, are discursively separated from it.

I have spent much of my professional life working out of that paradox, trying to honor and benefit from the disciplines that comprise education while also writing for audiences beyond those disciplines. Over the years, people have asked me why I do this work and how I came to do it. And then there is a further question: can I, can we, help others learn how to do it? For about 20 years now I have been teaching courses at UCLA to aid our students in becoming more skillful scholarly writers and possibly writers who also will write about their work for audiences beyond their disciplines. Such work raises basic issues about public scholarship—what is it exactly and what is the role of writing in achieving it? Implications follow for education’s reward structure and for the very way education defines itself.

In exploring these issues, I will draw on examples from the kind of writing I do—books, essays, opinion pieces—but I will try at every turn to draw broader lessons from those examples. Books, essays, and opinion pieces are traditional forms, I realize, and there are many other new media genres and platforms today to engage broader audiences, but I do think that many of the skills and dispositions developed in traditional forms carry over to some new media genres such as blogs as well as to speaking in policy settings and broadcast media. All of these forms of communication involve persuasion, precision, and an attunement to one’s audience.

So who exactly is this public I want us to better engage?

There is a rich theoretical literature on the notion of the public – and I certainly don’t claim expertise in that literature – but let me start by proposing a fairly simple definition. When I talk about writing for a broader public, I mean non-specialist audiences, readers who potentially could come from a wide range of backgrounds, from policy makers to people participating in occupational training programs.

To write for non-specialist audiences, however, does not mean abandoning one’s scholarly audience. This is a hugely important point. To my mind, the two modes of writing are intimately connected. Everything I write for newspapers or magazines or trade publishers has to pass muster with my academic peers, meet their requirements for evidence and argumentation. I am continually testing my writing with my statistician friends, my sociological colleagues, my fellow investigators of cognition and culture. Whatever credibility my writing for broader audiences might have begins at home.

But for me, it is essential that at least some of my writing extends beyond home base, be built from a vocabulary and syntax, from examples, and from genres that have the potential of being taken up by non-specialist educators, by students, by parents and others interested in the topics I write about.

I hope for these readers, but the public sphere is complex and fluid, and there are a lot of variables that affect whether what I write gets taken up by the publics I imagine: Where does my work appear? Who has access to it? What else is in the news? Obviously much of this is out of my control.

One more introductory thing to say about the public and publics. In the same way that people hold multiple identities and participate in multiple social groups—someone might identify as a woman, a Mexican-American, a daughter, a parent, and a physician—in this same way people can potentially comprise multiple publics. This varied participation contributes to the dynamism of the public sphere, and opens up at times surprising opportunities for educators. When I’ve been doing radio interviews for my books that deal with poor academic preparation, or adults returning to school, or the intelligence involved in blue-collar work, I’ll sometimes get scheduled on quite conservative stations, at times on shows where listeners can call in. This is not a public I’d normally reach, but in this context, on these topics some hosts and listeners affiliate into a receptive audience. In its fluidity, the public sphere can yield unexpected, albeit temporary, alliances. Our country desperately needs these alliances today.

I’ll have more to say about the public and publics as we proceed, but now let me consider my own development as a writer, for I think there are some useful lessons in the story.

How I Started Writing for the Public and Why I Continue to Do It.

The first thing to know is that there’s nothing in my formative background that forecasts a disposition to engage a broader public. I grew up in a poor family that was beset by illness, and as protection against the hardship around me, I found refuge in my imagination more than in my classes. I developed into an uneven, lackluster student, saved only by a 12th grade English teacher who turned my life around. I had no substantial involvement in any of school’s more public activities: no theater, no debate squad, no newspaper or yearbook, no volunteer clubs that took me beyond the schoolhouse walls.

That English teacher managed to get me into a small college on probation where I stumbled but eventually found new mentors and began to do well. I was fortunate to receive a fellowship to pursue a doctorate in English at UCLA, but after a year of esoteric study and late nights in the library I left the university and began ten years of tutoring and teaching in programs for populations who in some way required extra support to succeed academically: elementary school children from poor families, Vietnam Veterans, participants in job training programs, underprepared college students. Each of these populations was salient in various national discussions of educational and social issues, and through the work I was doing, I got exposed to these discussions and formed opinions about them. The last of these jobs was running the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) Tutorial Center at UCLA—a program for first-generation college students and students from underrepresented populations, many of whom came from lower-income families and under-resourced schools. This was the time of the “back-to-basics” movement and heated debates about college access, pitting “access” against “excellence”. As director of the tutorial center, I had to assist in writing reports for the administration justifying our program’s efforts, and some of those reports were framed in the terms of those national debates.

My work in EOP led me to reenter graduate school, but this time in education. I drew on my tutoring and teaching for some of the class papers I wrote. And I kept helping my boss in EOP with those reports. But here’s the odd thing: Though I grumbled mightily about some of the articles I read in the newspaper about access, or academic underpreparation, or remediation, I never tried to write a response, not even a letter to the editor.

I was, however, writing something. During those ten years of teaching and tutoring I was writing poetry. I had never taken a creative writing class and never participated in workshops; I was self-taught, and it showed. My poetry was awful. But I worked and worked at it, increasingly deriving great pleasure from the writing. I picked up some techniques by reading contemporary poets. I got feedback from friends who were better writers than I was. The more I wrote and revised, the more I learned about writing. My poetry got half-way decent, and I began to publish some of it in small literary magazines. The poems were mostly imagistic snapshots or whimsical romances, but as I matured as a writer, I began to write imagined scenes from the lives of my immigrant Italian forbears in Southern Italy or in the railroad and coal towns of West-Central Pennsylvania where they settled. One more thing to say about my poems: Though poetry is in some respects an elite art form—in the United States, at least—I was publishing for an audience different from an academic one. A potentially more general literary audience. Others saw me as a writer—my physician wrote “teacher and writer” in my medical chart—and I slowly began to see myself that way, too.

These then are the two strands of my life that developed from the end of college through my doctoral studies in education: One has to do with teaching, academic underpreparation, and, by implication, social class. And this strand eventually yielded administrative reports and analytical papers, some of which I began to publish in academic journals devoted to the study and teaching of writing. The other strand was creative writing, which had a very different purpose, style, and audience from my expository and scholarly writing. I deeply valued both, but there came a point when I began to wonder if these distinct ways of rendering human experience could be brought together.

One afternoon—and I remember this vividly—I spread a sheet of butcher paper out on my bed, and I pasted on it several passages from textbooks on cognitive psychology, passages having to do with memory, the function of narrative, and the like. Underneath them, I placed some poems I had written about early events in my life or from my folks’ history in Pennsylvania. A discussion of memorial processes right next to a depiction of memories. Over the next year or so, I would experiment with ways to weave these different kinds of writing together. I would shift from poetry to prose sketches, which grew in length and in dramatic detail. And in place of the textbook passages, I would eventually use the kind of analysis I was writing for academic journals, but without the academic trappings—analysis of problems students had with writing, for example, or of the history of a practice like grammar instruction. It was during this experimentation, this playing around with texts, that the desire to write about academic underpreparation for a broader public emerged and took hold—and I was seeing an aesthetically feasible way to reach that public. The result three years later was the blended genre of my first general audience book, Lives on the Boundary. And the publication of that book created the opportunity to write opinion pieces on academic underpreparation and related issues.

Thus it was that I began to write about issues in education for a broader public. A further and perhaps more important question is why do I continue to do it? I’ve thought a lot about that question, and here’s my best guess. I think I continue to do this work because of four interlocking motives, ones that you can see emerging in the developmental account I just gave you.

I will illustrate them using another, more recent book, The Mind at Work, a study of the rich cognition—from problem-solving to communication—involved in blue-collar and service work. Drawing on a range of research methods, I try in The Mind at Work to bring the reader in close to the factory floor and the busy restaurant, the beauty salon and the carpentry workshop to observe the waitress prioritizing tasks on the fly, the carpenter visualizing the movement of doors on a cabinet, and the welder combining physical skill, knowledge of tools and metals, and aesthetic values to produce a sturdy weld. These findings are embedded in a larger discussion of the way we define intelligence and the relationship among judgments about intelligence, occupational status, and the dynamics of social class.

Here are the motives.
  • A moral/ethical motive. Some issue gnaws at me. It can be an injustice or a bias but also a misrepresentation or simplification. In the case of The Mind at Work it would be the underestimation of the cognitive demands of everyday work, the class bias involved in that underestimation, and the resulting negative judgments about the intelligence of blue-collar and service workers. 
  • An intellectual motive. The issue is complex, multi-layered, presents a challenge to analyze and think through. With The Mind at Work there are both the methodological demands of investigating cognition in the workplace as well as the conceptual richness of exploring the historically tangled relationship between social class and assessments of intelligence. 
  • A communicative/rhetorical motive. I feel compelled to take the issue into a public forum, for it has educational and social implications. In The Mind at Work I offer both a critique of and recommendations for Career and Technical Education, emphasizing the cognitive content of work and the value of a pedagogy that helps students develop both an investigative cast of mind and an understanding of the social and economic underpinnings of their work.
I also think The Mind at Work has implications for our civic life. One of the elements in our divisive politics is the condescension about education and intelligence experienced by many in the working classes—an experience masterfully exploited by the Right.
  • An aesthetic motive. Finding the genre and the language to execute the other three motives and to produce a piece of writing that informs and engages. This involves craft pleasure—getting the sentences right, telling a good story—but also, if successful, contributes to the rendering of experience in a way that readers can participate in imaginatively. One of the big challenges I faced with The Mind at Work was figuring out how to describe the use of tools and the execution of procedures in a way that is true to the work people do but is also narratively effective and inviting. I’ll have more to say about this aesthetic motive when discussing the teaching of public writing. 
Let me provide a very compressed example of these four motives coming together. This is the opening paragraph of a Labor Day opinion piece I drew from The Mind at Work:

Two men are installing a washer and dryer into a narrow space behind folding doors in my kitchen. Between them there is ongoing verbal and nonverbal communication to coordinate the lift, negotiate the tight fit, and move in rhythm with each other. They have to be quick—mine is the first of 15 deliveries—yet methodical and careful to avoid damaging the washer and dryer or injuring themselves. All the while, they are weighing options—how do they get these damned machines into this cramped space—and solving problems, the big one emerging when it becomes clear that the dryer doesn’t match up with my gas outlet. As they are finishing up, I compliment them on the speed and skill of the installation. They thank me, and one of them walks over a few steps wiping his hands and says it is rare that customers talk to them this way. “They treat us like mules,” he says.

The communicative/rhetorical motive is reflected in my decision to write the opinion piece containing this vignette for a large-circulation metropolitan newspaper. The bias and insult revealed in the installer’s comment about being treated like mules is a moral affront. I am also intellectually engaged by the many small actions involved in physical labor, a flow of micro-level decisions and adjustments that typically go unnoticed. And, finally, there is an aesthetic challenge in trying to render in a short paragraph both the cognitive content and the social meaning of this everyday act of installing an appliance.


So that’s my writing story, how I got to the kind of work I do today and what drives me to keep doing it. The particulars of my life aside, I think there are some general implications—some tips about writing, scholarship, and career—that can be drawn from this story. These implications might be especially relevant for people who are at similar points in their professional development as I was—graduate students, new faculty—but in my experience, I’ve also seen more established scholars engage some of the issues I raised at transition points in their own work and career.

  • The first implication: Experiment with your writing, stretch yourself. I’m not asking you to play around with poems and butcher paper, but see if you can try something new. I realize it may be more accepted to experiment within qualitative genres or with historical or philosophical writing, but even if you’re working in more prescribed forms—the article reporting statistical data from an intervention study, for example—you’ve got a little room to move… if you’ll excuse the bad pun, a few degrees of freedom. Can you open with a brief vignette from the study? In describing the site or the problem that is the target of the intervention, can you draw a comparison from a well-known novel or movie? Can you in the conclusion effectively work in a personal reflection on the study or render a telling event from the execution of the intervention? Is there a compelling metaphorical or imagistic way to convey the dimensions of the problem or the size or variation of the treatment effect? If all of that feels out of reach, how about this more humble task: Try breaking up those long, mind-numbing paragraphs we write, looking for the strategic juncture that enables you to emphasize a point that is otherwise buried in a slag heap of prose. 
  • The second implication: Don’t segment off your previous lives when coming to the study of education. Something really useful for me happened when I finally brought my emerging poet self together with the fledgling academic administrator and researcher: I began to develop a public narrative style.
It is not uncommon that people become educational researchers after having done some other kind of work. Typically that work is teaching, but it also can be anything from carpentry to dance to the law. Students will say something like: “Oh, that’s behind me now,” or “That was another life.” A pre-researcher self, not to interrupt the big task currently at hand. “Hold on,” I’ll say. “Don’t do that to yourself and to that rich experience. Embrace it. Use it.” Then I’ll spend some time thinking with them about carpentry or dance and what their knowledge might add to the way they approach issues in education.

I love the example provided by the esteemed educational anthropologist, Frederick Erickson. Erickson was a music major as an undergraduate and went on to get a masters degree in musicology. He had also begun volunteering in after-school programs in Chicago, and that work would lead him to change course and pursue a doctorate in education. Music remained a passion, but educational research became his career. Some years passed, and then during his important study of gatekeeping in job interviews and academic advising, he (as he put it to me in a recent email) “…began to realize that our real-time transcripts of talk—long scrolls of horizontal transcription—looked like the orchestra scores I’d studied as a music student. So at that point I connected up my early formation as a cellist, singer, composer, and music history student with the study of how people talk in interaction in real time.” Fred’s music background attuned him to the qualities of rhythm and timing in verbal and non-verbal behavior. Our vocations and avocations contain skills and ways of seeing that can benefit our research and give it a wider reach.
  • The last implication I’ll draw from my story is to consider the ways your research might connect to issues of societal importance. That connection might not be immediately obvious. The historian studying the development of school boards or the applied statistician working on a refinement of Item Response Theory might both think a public reach is beyond them. But the historian could provide a helpful perspective on current debates about school governance, and the IRT specialist would be an invaluable resource amid the flow of misinformation about standardized testing. Once you see a connection, decide what means of establishing that connection work best for you, given your skills, your personality and values, and your place in your career. I’m focusing on certain genres of public writing, but these days, there are a lot of possible ways to make a public connection open to you: You could work with local schools or with parent and community groups. You could speak at civic, business, or faith-based forums. You could try to establish a relationship with local media, and your school’s public information office can help you with that. You could write policy briefs. And, of course, you could participate in the ever-growing venues provided by new media. 
These forms of involvement can be intermittent or ongoing, and they can evolve, one leading to another. You might have the disposition and skills to slip right into one of these forms of public scholarship, or it might take time to develop competence and comfort. It took me years to find my way. I certainly saw a connection between the work I was doing with underprepared students and the national debates of the time, but I didn’t think of myself as a possible participant in those debates—today we would say I hadn’t yet acquired the identity to do so—and I was still in the process of developing the narrative techniques I would need to find my entry point. But I did find that entry point. And so can you. If you lack the requisite skills, you can develop them. If, for example, you have never written an opinion piece, your first shot will miss the mark, perhaps widely. Stick with it. Practice it and you will learn it.

Teaching Professional and Public Writing

I noted earlier that over the last few decades I’ve created and taught courses to help graduate students become better writers, both for scholarly and for broader audiences. I believe that researchers (and their readers) benefit when they become more aware of themselves as writers, more attuned to the articulation of their work. And this orientation to writing, I further believe, poises them to write for audiences beyond their disciplinary colleagues. But establishing writing courses at the graduate level can be politically delicate, so for those of you interested in creating a writing course, let me begin by telling you the origin story of our courses at UCLA.

When I came into the UCLA Graduate School of Education in late 1994, I visited with about a dozen faculty to find out more about their research and teaching and also to get a sense of what departmental needs or problems I could address. Writing came up continually. Eventually, I took all this to my Chair who convened a meeting where our faculty came together to talk about writing. The topic touched nerves and needs, and the faculty ended up affirming the importance of some sort of systematic writing instruction. As one professor put it, “it’s part of [students’] ongoing development.” “Students [in our division] are required to take three statistics courses,” added another, “and writing is no less important for their professional success.” “It’s an issue of methods training,” said a third.

I was a member of our school’s Social Research Methodology Division, and when I proposed a graduate-level course in professional writing, I asked that my divisional colleagues define it as a methods course. They agreed and saw it as no different in status from a course in factor analysis or program evaluation. Later we would end up requiring it of all our methodology students. Other divisions would list it as an option to fulfill their methods requirements. The teaching of graduate-level scholarly writing was certified and legitimized. At the research university, writing courses are often defined as applied skills courses and service course. And a number of faculty see them as remedial, teaching skills that students should have mastered in previous schooling. So the certification of the writing course would prove to be crucial for its health and longevity.

The course that resulted, “Professional Writing in Education,” is structured as a workshop. Each participant brings in a short piece of writing (preferably part of one or two larger projects being worked on throughout the term), distributes it to the class, then reads it out loud, even if half of it is charts and statistical tables. Because so many students in education come out of the social or psychological sciences, they have rarely, if ever, had the opportunity to think about their writing as writing and not just a vehicle to hold information. I want them to hear their writing. Hear its rhythm. Listen for its logic. After the reading, the writer comments on the piece, gets first crack at it: what did she or he notice reading it aloud in the small public space of our classroom? What worked? What didn’t? After the writer passes first judgment, the rest of the group discusses the piece, with me chiming in and then summarizing and focusing the comments at the end.

Our discussions cover a wide range of topics central to scholarly writing: from the adequacy of research questions and the framing of a literature review, to the interweaving of tables and text, to the sentence-by-sentence coherence of an argument. These topics are the bread and butter of the course. But a number of other things happen as well that encourage participants to see writing as a social, communicative act.

These courses are open to students from across the five divisions in our school of education, so a particular class might include students studying child development, higher education, school segregation, and testing and measurement. These people do not arrive with the same background knowledge or disciplinary assumptions. As a result, conversations often revolve around clarification of concepts that may seem basic or straightforward to the writer but are new to the readers. The result is that the writer is compelled to communicate her or his ideas more clearly and with less jargon, and this can lead to some useful writerly tricks of the trade: learning to present a technical term followed by a precise definition or quick example, or explaining in plain language what a particular method enables you to do, or creating apt illustrative metaphors or analogies, and so on.

And, in some cases, something else happens. When writing new material, participants report thinking about particular comments or people as they compose. “I know I need to be clearer right at the beginning about my topic,” they might say, or “I was imagining you asking me the ‘so what?’ question, so I tried to answer it right here.” Participants are internalizing the audiences represented around the workshop table. More generally, they are learning to make their scholarly writing accessible to a wider—albeit still academic—audience.

Some students come to the course as effective writers, but over the years I’ve been struck by the number of students who operate with pretty counterproductive approaches to and assumptions about writing. They have limited or rigid planning or revising strategies, or inaccurate or unrealistic beliefs about how writers write, or—a big one—they simply have had limited exposure to good, extended instruction that provided them feedback on what they wrote. Hand in glove with growing audience awareness, students, over time, modify their understanding of the process of writing. They might start planning earlier or in a different way. They seek feedback on drafts from trusted peers. They began to see writing not as an innate gift or out-of-reach skill but as something they can work on: They can move sentences or parts of sentences around; they can address the reader more directly; they can try out some of the stylistic devices a peer uses that appeal to them. This last point brings me again to aesthetics, a topic I mentioned when I was discussing the motives driving my own writing.

With the exception of those areas of study that explicitly deal with aesthetic concerns—arts education, for example, or aesthetic theory—we in education don’t talk much about the aesthetic, perhaps because of our era’s largely functionalist orientation toward school-related research. But in fact there is an aesthetic dimension to so much of what we do, from the mathematical elegance of statistical operations, to the beauty (why shouldn’t we use that word?) of a child thinking her way through a science experiment, to the graceful communication that concerns me in this essay. When working with students on their writing, I try to raise this aesthetic awareness whenever I can.

Aesthetic and rhetorical concerns move to the forefront in the second course I developed on writing for non-specialist audiences, particularly on writing the opinion piece and magazine article.

On the first day of the course, I distribute a selection of newspaper opinion pieces and have the participants inductively identify the common features of the genre. As with “Professional Writing in Education,” this course is structured as a workshop, so student talk and interaction are central to instruction.

Participants immediately notice the brevity and conciseness of the opinion piece (versus the longer, more elaborated writing of their disciplines). Length varies, but 800 words is typical. Online pieces give the writer more room to move, yet claims and arguments still are made quickly and without heavy citation or the piling on of other research relevant to the topic.

Evidence is present in the opinion piece, of course, but it will be one or two key statistics or examples or reports, or a telling and crisp quotation from an expert. Writing about the plight of temp workers, for example, labor policy analyst Laura Jones warns, “When it comes to benefits, temps better take their vitamins and look both ways before crossing the street: Only 5% receive employer-provided health insurance.” The question that often emerges is, how does one select a sample of evidence that is vibrant yet still representative? Or, more challenging, how does one deal with conflicting evidence when length is so bounded? Wrestling with these questions forces us to consider what is absolutely essential to our argument.

Participants also notice features of the op-ed genre, particularly the “hook,” the linking of the piece onto a current event in the news. And, in some pieces, the “turn,” that point where the writer, having summarized current policy or perception, turns the tables and offers another way—the way the writer prefers—to think about the issue at hand.

Opinion pieces are written in all kinds of styles and voices—from polemical to didactic to ironic—but participants comment on the commonalities in language, the accessible vocabulary, the lack of jargon, and the frequent use of colloquial speech for rhetorical effect. Along with word choice, they notice the syntax of sentences—often not as complicated as they find in scholarly prose. And of course they notice the short paragraphs, sometimes only one brief sentence in length.

After taking the genre apart, after analyzing its form and language, we set out to build our own opinion pieces.

For the next meeting, participants bring in an opening paragraph or two of the pieces they want to write, and we workshop these together: Is the issue clearly stated? Does it grab us? What exactly is the writer asking that we do? And thus we proceed through the next four or five meetings, the participants developing their opinion pieces paragraph by paragraph, draft by draft. They also are required to identify several possible venues for submission, which begins their targeted exploration of the public sphere they wish to enter.

Now, this isn’t a Hollywood movie, so I can’t tell you that everyone ends up writing a successful opinion piece, though some do get published. But published or not, the participants report that they’ve learned a lot about writing, and their progression of drafts demonstrates that learning.

Thinking back over the years I’ve taught both the professional and public writing courses, I believe that when the courses are successful, their most significant benefit is the fostering of a rhetorical sense, an understanding that writing acts on a reader and that the writer can do things that influence that response. Writing as craftwork and social act. As one student put it: “The course got me to think of my writing as strategic. Who am I writing to? Where do I want to take them with my argument? How can I get them there?”

I want to make one more point about these writing courses, what I’ll call the crossover effect.

At the beginning of this essay I wrote that most people entering educational research today want their work to be relevant to pressing educational and social issues. This certainly is the case with just about every person I’ve had in the professional writing class. But they often find themselves in a real dilemma: the harder they work to appropriate their discipline’s language—which is their linguistic coin of the realm—the more some of them feel that they are drifting further away from being able to communicate with teachers and administrators, let alone policy makers and non-educators. At least for some participants, the professional writing course helps them build some skills and an approach to writing that opens the door to that wider communication.

In the class on writing for the public, I encourage a kind of bilingualism or code-switching, the continued development of facility with both scholarly writing and writing for non-specialists. What do each of these ways of writing enable you to do? What limits does each carry with it? In addition to the knowledge about language use such questions foster, something else, not unrelated, happens: As students tackle the opinion piece and magazine article, the skills they learn began to play back onto the writing they do for their disciplines. Remember, they are learning to present an argument quickly, tersely, without scaffolds of jargon, catchphrases, and a swarm of citations. This honing of language can have a powerful effect on their conceptualization of the argument itself. What exactly am I trying to say here. What is the problem I’m trying to solve? What is the fundamental logic of my study? Writing the opinion piece, one student observed, “helped me think deeply about my [research] topic. It’s so easy to string a lot of fancy words together that look really important, but don’t really have substance to them.”

Education and Public Scholarship

In a way not dissimilar to the crossover effect I just mentioned between public and scholarly writing, an engagement with the public can have an effect on our research itself.

For starters, there’s simply more eyes or ears on our work. A lot more. Ask any educational researchers who have written for print or online media, or done radio interviews, or produced reports for public interest policy centers, and they’ll likely tell you about the surprising magnitude of the response. While some of those responses might be puzzling or downright hostile—via email I was recently informed I was “batshit crazy”—other responses enable us to see the usefulness of our research and even open possible connections to forward it.

Public engagement can also play back on the intellectual substance of our work, leading us to reconsider our understanding of context, or generate new research questions, or rethink our assumptions and our methodologies. My colleagues who work closely with schools and/or communities report this kind of generative interaction.

Finally, I think that engagement with broader publics can add to our sense of our work’s value and meaning—to the reasons many of us came to the work in the first place, but can get so lost in the production machinery and status dynamics of the profession.

Production and status. The eight million ton monster in the room. We can’t talk realistically about public scholarship without considering the way education defines itself as an academic profession in the United States and the reward system that emerges from and reciprocally reinforces that definition.

Let me begin by saying that I am not only asking for us to write better—though that would surely be a good thing. I’m asking that we write better out of a professional commitment to engage a public or publics beyond our disciplinary boundaries.

I’ve been focusing on writing because that is what I know best. But as I mentioned earlier, there are a number of ways this orientation toward the public can play out, from policy work to participation in a local school or youth program. There should be multiple ways a career could accommodate this public orientation, from occasional involvement to a much fuller commitment. A lot of educational researchers also align with other disciplines—statistics to anthropology—so the demands of these disciplines would factor into an individual’s degree of investment in the public sphere.

With the American Educational Research Association and The National Academy of Education leading the way, we should create a variety of career profiles or narratives to illustrate and justify these different blends of discipline-oriented and public-oriented work. These are stories we tell about what we do for purposes of evaluation and promotion, but also to teach others how to understand careers like ours. And one major point we would try to convey is that, finally, there does not have to be a divide between disciplinary inquiry and public engagement. As I’ve been arguing, there can be a powerful synergy between the two.

There’s nothing new in what I’m proposing. Decades ago, Ernest Boyer, the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, wrote a wonderful little book titled Scholarship Reconsidered in which he argues for a richly expanded definition of scholarly inquiry that would include the public engagement I’m calling for.

What are some practical things we can do as a profession to assist those who want to engage in public scholarship? I’ll offer a few quick suggestions.
Our graduate programs could include courses and workshops to aid students in writing for non-specialist audiences. A small number of programs currently offer the kinds of writing courses I’ve been discussing, so we have a start. Our conferences could host writing workshops as well. Earlier I told you the origin story of UCLA’s professional writing course. It was crucial—and this is even clearer to me in hindsight—that the course was embedded in our methodology curriculum. Communicating well was institutionally defined as an important dimension of educational inquiry.
Our journals could have a section—if they don’t already—for short thought pieces and commentaries. The discipline’s own publications would demonstrate the value of such writing by printing it.
With institutional or philanthropic support, we could establish more centers like the National Education Policy Center that in some way analyze education research for policy makers, media, and the general public.
Our professional organizations could function as clearinghouses for policy and media queries through online tools that guide inquiries to relevant scholars.

Readers with richer professional experience and more of an eagle’s eye view than I have can expand and elaborate this list.


As I bring this essay to a close, I would like to reflect on one of the publics that has emerged for me over the years and that has special meaning, given my background: the first-generation college students I sometimes write about, and that I once was myself. They are in high school and looking toward college, or they’re in community college, or in their first or second year of a four-year institution, often in a remedial writing class. I used to get handwritten notes from them, and now I get emails. Sometimes I spoke to their classes through a telephone hook-up, and now via Skype. The students are usually reading Lives on the Boundary or, more recently, Back to School, books dealing with the experience of being the first in your family to go to college, with access and academic underpreparation, and with the mix of trepidation and possibility that characterizes returning to school for a second or third chance. That cluster of issues.

What I’ve read and heard from faculty who assign these books and more directly from students themselves is that many first-generation students see themselves in these readings; they see students struggling as they are struggling, and that, they say, is oddly comforting. They are not alone, freakish, an anomaly. Some also report getting the bigger picture, gaining a sense of the economic and social forces that underlie academic underpreparation. And because some of the people they’re reading about go on to succeed, because they read the fuller story that is possible beyond the current difficulties they are having—because they see the longer view, they report the feeling of hope. People like them—and by implication themselves, perhaps—are written into the narrative of going to college and belonging there.

Through these interactions, I am given the remarkable opportunity to drop, so to speak, into the midst of the students’ reading. They are reading in different schools, in different regions of the country, facing different economic and social conditions. Their own stories have both distinct and shared features. All this furthers my understanding of the issues I write about, from the many faces of hardship, to the deeply complex nature of motivation and resilience, to the experience of education itself for these people in these classrooms. The communication here becomes an intricate loop.

Composing this essay has led me to take a long retrospective look at my own writing, beginning with that awful poetry way back when and building slowly with persistent practice toward these audiences of young and not-so-young people finding their way in school. I can honestly, peacefully say it has been worth the effort.

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