Michelle Cruz Gonzales on staying punk and teaching lessons

Since the 18th century, European and Western anarchists have been keenly interested in education. While figures such as William Godwin and Max Stirner helped with the initial framing, interest and application increased in the late 19th century. From the time of Ferrer and the Modern Schools in New York City (1911), anarchist education developed rhizomatically in multiple simultaneous directions. This profile of Michelle Cruz Gonzales is the first in a profile series on educators, non-traditional and traditional, who see themselves and their educational work as anti-authoritarian or working towards significant social change.

Michelle Cruz Gonzales’ is a Xicana, punk rock musician, author, and educator. Her personal and professional identities are defined in large part as by being a Xicana practitioner of Orwell’s anti-authoritarian cultural and writing practices. Author of The Spitboy Rule, Gonzales agreed to share her time to talk about teaching and working as an anti-authoritarian and punk rocker in education.

How has your experience in punk culture influenced your work as an educator?

Punk culture influences nearly every part of my life, especially teaching and learning. I was quiet about it for many years but there is nothing like perimenopause to reinvigorate a woman’s punk ethos. I’ve been thinking a lot about my inner-punk girl a lot. She identifies very strongly with her students, can almost understand what they are going through, their desire for a teacher who respects them and what they are going through. A teacher who won’t dismiss them, their ideas, or their particular struggles, even struggles that are unique to millennials, the kinds of attributes that get written about in popular culture, the accusations of narcissism, sense of entitlement, how scattered they are viewed as being. Teaching young adults feels very much like being in a punk band like Spitboy, a message-first band, a band who challenged people to think in new ways. I gave a talk at USC recently, and I said that if Spitboy were a class, we’d be a gender studies class. While I don’t teach gender studies, per say, there was always something sort of academic about what we were doing. A lot of our songs were inspired by books like Mismeasure of Woman by Carol Tavris, Back Lash by Susan Faludi, Ultimate Violations by Judith Rowlands, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and Possessing the Secret of Joy by Alice Walker.

 

What are the most significant challenges radical or anti-authoritarian educators face when teaching, and how do you address these challenges?

Internal conflict about how to manage a classroom is a common challenge, the thought of being “in charge” of people when you’d really rather people just be in charge of themselves. Grades and grading is another issue. One way I deal with my anxiety about grades is to allow for there to be a certain margin of error on my part: bad teaching, not being clear when I could have been, bad math, assignments not actually put into the grading system when they should have been, things like that. I always round up when any grade is on the 9s. However, a bigger issue is what grades come to represent and how they almost totally detract from the real purpose of higher ed and that is learning, learning to be a good communicator, critical thinker, and a fully-functioning member of a republic.

A critique of radicals in academia is that we are parasites or hypocrites because we take money from the State via pay and benefits. How do you address this tension?

This question made me a laugh a little, given how important what we do is, and how little we’re paid in comparison to other industries, but I know this is not the concern of anti-capitalists. I’m obviously not above “taking money from the state,” but it’s something that I think about.

I feel that a lot of what I do in my role as an educator verges on activism, things like helping to end reliance on standardized testing (on my campus and helping spread the word about use of overall HS GPA for placement) which disproportionately impacts students of colour, but I am terribly aware that it isn’t activism given that I get paid to do that work. I use campus meetings, time, and resources to do this work, work that many would not choose to do, that many would not bother with, but I am not usually doing it for free, so I try not to get all romantic about this work as activism.

Regarding state money; it’s actually not the state’s money, it’s taxpayer’s money, and in addition to my salary, I oversee two rather large pots of money that comes from taxpayer dollars: the Basic Skills Student Transformations Grant (three-year grant) and the Basic Skills Grant (annual funds). I take spending tax payers dollars very seriously; spending this money to create student support programs should be done with sufficient planning and based on data and best practices. I went to a conference recently that was fully-funded by one of these grants, and I took one of my own personal days in order to fly out early to save money, as it felt like the right thing to do. I totally get that it’s a privilege to have personal days too.

For folks who love learning but have issues with school-related authority, what do you recommend?

I would recommend asking other students for teacher recommendations, and if you have to go to a site like ratemyprofessor.com, but do read between the lines, as many people who post on those sites either really hate or really like the instructors who they rate. Read the ratings like you’d read book or restaurant reviews. That is to say read several, employ some critical analysis, and decide whether that teacher would be good for you. Another way is to ask instructors who you feel safe with and whose style you like, who they’d recommend.

Another thing to do would be to learn about the different learning styles, figure out what yours is and know that when something about an instructor really annoys you, it might just be that they are teaching in or to their own learning style, something they might not be able to stop doing. Sometimes just knowing opens our minds and creates understanding.

Have you found the same concerns about “selling out” among radical or activist educators as in the punk scene?

This selling out idea exists everywhere, in academia and/or politics it usually happens within the context of compromising one’s values. Ironically, compromise is one strategy that we all must employ in all sorts of areas in order to find peace and/or to jump start change. However, another way to look the idea of selling out is from the perspective of people with privilege. In grad school a lot of folks in the MFA program that I was in didn’t want to teach because reading because they thought reading bad/developing writing would ruin or taint their own writing, like it would taint the creative process, so then teaching would be a form of selling out for your art.

I called bullshit on that because for me, a first-generation high school and college grad and a Xicana, someone who came from a family of campesinos/rancheros on one side (artists on the other), people who worked with their hands, the idea of looking down at teaching seemed insane and coming from a place of privilege, this idea that a writer should be above teaching, service work. In the punk scene many of the people who I’ve seen “sell out” are people who came from working class backgrounds, people for whom upwardly mobileness would have been very difficult to attain, and a living through music presented itself. With all that I’d like to stress that it’s not uncommon, in my experience, for people with privilege to hold those with less privilege back with the sell-out threat. For me it’s a privilege to teach, and it gives me a platform that people in my family never had. Of course this platform puts me in a privileged position, one that I work hard not to abuse.

What thinkers, writers, activists, or radicals have influenced your work as an educator and anti-authoritarian?

Joe Strummer, George Orwell, Alice Walker, Margaret Atwood, Barbara Ehrenreich, Ana Castillo, Sonia Nazario, The Clash, Dead Kennedys, Paolo Freire, Corky Gonzales, Rubin Salazar, and more recently John Hetts, and Black Minds Matter creators Dr. Luke Wood and Frank Harris III.

How do you address the challenge of balancing authentic learning with making sure your students get the necessary boxes checked for their degree and thus the ability to find a job?

The state of CA is super focused on moving students through the pathway at a much faster pace than ever before, which is in some ways good because we finally, via data, understand that students don’t need as much “remediation” as we have traditionally thought, but there are also cost-saving reasons for this focus on pace. The real downside is that it moves the idea of authentic learning even further away from the end-goal from students who are already grade, degree, and job focused. I speak to authentic learning in my classrooms often; I do not sacrifice rigor, and I work really hard to allow time for real Socratic-style discussions in which students are responding to one another, really engaging with the ideas of the course together.

Interview by Luther Blisset


This article first appeared in the Summer edition of Freedom Journal