An Interview with Ruth K. J. Cline
by Lynne Alvine
Ruth K. J. Cline earned a B.A. from St. Olaf College, Minnesota and then taught high school English tn Iowa and Minnesota for ten years. After completing an M.A. in English and a Ph.D. in Education from the University of Iowa, she accepted a faculty position in the College of Education at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1966. She has presented and published widely on the topics of teacher preparation, adolescent literature, and secondary school reading development. Her own book Focus on Families (1989) is one of the seven books now in print in the series Teenage Perspectives for which she serves as Series Editor. She co-authored, with William McBride, A Guide to Literature for Young Adults (1983). Professor Cline has been a lifelong member of NCTE, serving as Vice-President, President-Elect, President, and Past President between 1988 and 1991. In addition, she has been active in ALAN, CEE and NCATE work. She has received numerous teaching and service awards, including WlLLA's Rewey Belle Inglis Award in 1991.
Many young people in her English classes and many teachers of English have benefitted both directly and indirectly from her lifetime of service to the teaching of English, English education, and the National Council of Teachers of English. Dr. Cline is presently Chair of the NCTE Committee on Ethics in the Profession.
Q. What are the goals of the NCTE Ethics Committee?
A. One of the missions of our committee is to bring forward ethical issues in a way that makes it possible for membership to discuss them. Our whole country needs to have a lot more conversation about what is ethical and what isn't. It was time for NCTE to look at the issues and identify the questions that are embedded in them. We're also charged to get the ethical statements from other professional organizations, to examine them to see if there is any way they could be useful to English teachers. [The MLS is] looking at the ethical obligations of teachers toward their colleagues, obligations toward students, towards one another. We're still in the information gathering stage. Although we brainstormed our areas of concern at our first meeting, we haven't had a chance to get very far.
Q. Can you bring to mind some of those areas?
A. Yes. Composition is one of the areas. What obligation do teachers of writing have towards their students and toward the kind of confidential things that students might write about? Another issue is the whole business of plagiarism. The professor gets something wonderful from a student and then just uses it as if it were his or her own idea. There's the ethics of marketing what we do. What is the ethic of claims that we make to students in our classes? The course description... Is there any ethical issue involved here? Is it simply a description of what we hope to achieve or are we making some kind of a claim? There are a lot of areas of gray that will be difficult to deal with. That's why the committee is planning to use a case study approach and open the conversation to our membership.
Q. You were interviewed recently for the NCTE COUNCIL CHRONICLE. The piece about the Ethics Committee has a sidebar that presents an ethical issue.
A. Yes. The members of the committee are very interested in this case study approach. What Jack [Bushman] and I did on the case study we put in the CHRONICLE (June, 1993) was to raise some questions that we hope teachers will discuss. The ethical issue is "teaching to the contract," to the letter of the contract. In districts that are cutting back on teachers' salaries, teachers don't want to penalize students by having a strike. So, what they are doing is teaching to the letter of the contract. If it is something that is not specified in the contract, they're not doing it. For instance, students have been asking for letters of recommendation. These teachers are saying, "We're sorry. We can't do that." This issue that permeates all levels could be really a hot item. Is this a less destructive way to let people know your dissatisfaction with your work conditions than it would be to have a strike? Is it less harmful to the students to do it this way? Or is it more harmful to the students?
Q. Not only in terms of time lost, but in terms of modeling what it is to be a profession...?
A. You've got all of that. And yet, teachers get dumped on so much and we always stand up through all of this junk and we say, "Oh, but we are very nurturing and we are very professional and we're going to do what we need to do anyway." You think, at what point do we say, "Hold it! This is the end." So, there are a lot of really muddy parts of this thing that we could get into, and I think that our committee is saying, "We don't want to say 'This is what you've gotta do.' " We're not going to dictate ethics, but I think we have an obligation to raise the issues, to get the people to think about them and to talk about them.
Q. One of the purposes of WILLA is to foster exploration of issues related to women in the profession and/or girls and young women in our classrooms. How does the work of the Ethics Committee relate to that goal?
A. In one session in Richmond, there was a discussion of ethical issues related to teachers' interactions with students -- how they call on girls, what kind of response they expect. Is that an ethical issue? I think it is. I would hope that WILLA members would talk with one another and then with us about their concerns. I'm beginning to think of a publication that will have vignettes for discussion. We might suggest a few questions that would be appropriate for that vignette. Teacher education classes should be discussing these things. Current teachers should be talking about these things in their committee meetings and their faculty meetings. Our first efforts will be the vignettes we are putting into the CHRONICLE. We want people to think about them and to respond to them, to write to the CHRONICLE at NCTE headquarters.
Q. What are some of the other areas?
A. We have identified about 14 areas. Within each area there were a number of questions. For instance, the whole business of tracking students often separates out by race. We tend to think girls are going to be better English students and the science teachers and math teachers think that boys are better in those subjects. That's a very obvious example. The session in Richmond talked about the kind of questions you ask boys and girls -- or that you don't ask them. You don't ask girls things that are challenging. I think we do need to make teachers aware of whom they are calling on and what kind of questions they're framing for them. We've had this old myth that boys will read boys' stories and girls will read boys' stories but that boys will not read girls' stories. I think we need to do more research on that. I don't think that's true anymore. Some of the new books would dispel that idea in a minute, but I don't know if there is data. I'm thinking of a good example -- DOWN RIVER by Will Hobbs, a young adult book where the protagonist is a girl, and she's wonderful. She's a strong girl, and she helps to hold the group together. I think any boy would enjoy reading that story. In his newest book which is called THE BIG WONDER, the main character is a 14-year-old boy. He sees girls, and he would really like to get to know them. When he does get to know one, she's a really strong girl and strong character. She doesn't have a big role in the story, but she is important, nevertheless. It's good. You don't have to count how many pages the strong woman appears on in the book. We need to have a better way of measuring the impact of a character.
Q. One of your concerns is the concern for the disintegration of our social fabric. Perhaps your being chair of the ethics committee comes out of that concern. What angers you? What frustrates you? What depresses you about our social structure?
A. I hate to see kids get the short end of things. I know that it can go the other way and kids can be so pampered and spoiled, but we have a lot of adults in our society who are thinking only of themselves -- selfish, self-centered people who have kids and have no idea how to treat them. And that angers me. That's one of my big gripes about the "Right-to-Life" people. Right-to-life, but what kind of life? Some of those kids are born into situations that are just awful ... awful ... awful! This is a personal reaction, not something our committee is talking about, but I think that deep down that's one of the things that teachers need to think about. Who is their class? What are they facing? I went to Denny Taylor's presentation in Richmond. It was powerful because she's talking about the kinds of problems not just kids bring, but the problems their parents put on them. How can kids think about multiplication tables and math problems and reading stories about somebody else's life when their own life is in such disarray?
Q. Where does your interest in the ethics committee come from for you? as a woman? as an educator? as a person who has worked with schools and schooling across a few years?
A. I've thought about this a number of times. I think that one of the key influences would be my father. He was superintendent of a small school in Iowa when I remember him. My dad had been there for four years as superintendent, and then he and my mother moved to a farm a hundred miles away. Dad was going to be a farmer, but they were afraid of losing the farm in the Depression, and this community offered him the job again of being Superintendent. Mr. Lee, the District Superintendent for the Methodist Church, had told people in that community that he thought my father was such a good example for young people that they ought to hire him just to be there -- even if they didn't have a job for him. I didn't know about that until I was teaching school myself, and I started thinking about why a community would feel that way. One of the things I remember very distinctly was that my father had the idea that every single child had something to offer. It wasn't that they were all wonderful students, but there was some thing that made them unique and it was our job as teachers to find out what that was. I do think that has influenced me as a teacher and as a person. When I meet people, I like to think what is there that makes them special, that makes them unique? I sometimes go on a real quest to figure it out.
Q. Can you identify when you might have first become aware that opportunities for young women might not be the same as opportunities for young men?
A. In my life, I've always assumed that the opportunities were the same. It was because of my father. He had four boys and me. I always knew that I could do anything. When he talked about the future, it was like... "Well, what do you want to do? You can do it." I thought everybody grew up that way. I was really surprised when I found out that wasn't the way other people looked at life and that women didn't have all those opportunities.
Q. And your mother?
A. My mother was a very strong person. She died last August at the age of 98 and 10 months. She had a remarkable life. There are a lot of people who were inspired by her, by her strength and her faith and her belief in her children. It was a real privilege to have her as a mother.
Q. She also had that perspective that women could do anything?
A. Because she did. She went to Normal School and taught. Her mother died when she was very young, and she wanted to be a teacher. I don't think many of her age mates did that. She taught and she was principal of a school, a little two-room school near Des Moines.
Q. How have others responded to your self assurance?
A. My family kind of expected me to do things, to succeed. I keep going into the world with the idea that I can. When I went to the University of Colorado, I was the only woman in the secondary division. When we first started having faculty meetings, they looked at me like, "Where's the coffee?" But they quit doing that and they got their own coffee and they brought me coffee. I think, on the whole, I expected to be treated as an equal and I think I have been. I get a little put out with women who don't expect it and then who whine. I guess I was more willing to go to somebody and say, "Why did you say that?" or "That wasn't a very nice thing to have happen." As far as NCTE is concerned, we have a predominance of women in our organization. I'm always pleased when women get elected to positions, but yet I've worked with some wonderful men who need to be heard and who need to be there. I would like to think that when I was President I expected to hear from both men and women. And I respected what they said. I think that how you are brought up has a lot to do with it. I was very fortunate, and I'm appreciative. I think that my brothers have been surprised at some of the things that I've done. I don't think my father would have been surprised.
Q. Can you identify where in your life an awareness of gender issues first emerged? I was with you at that Richmond session. I know you have that awareness....
A. I sure do, but I don't know exactly when it happened. I think that I was probably teaching at the University of Colorado when I read about gender issues in the seventies. I started being more aware of myself and the types of questions I asked the men and women in my classes. I keep reading things and learning. The recent AAUW research studies are fascinating.
Q. Say something about those and how they interest you.
A. They look at the number of men and women who are going into science, for instance. Women have been scared off for years about science and math. When I find a girl in education who is going into one of those areas, I get excited and encourage her. I taught an oral communications course at the university that was taken by all majors, elementary and secondary, where I pushed the gender issue concerns. It was an appropriate place to do that, and seemed effective.
Q. What have you read in the last 4-6 years in the YA genre that you would recommend to teachers who want students to read about characters with more appropriate sex roles?
A. I think that we need to talk about sex roles in all books. [The characters] don't have to be just wonderful role models. I think we can talk about why this wasn't a wonderful role model. What was there about this boy in the story that was negative or that made you think he was sexist.
Q. We can raise the consciousness of our students around stereotyped characters?
A. I think we all wait for the perfect book, and there's not going to be such an animal. So I think we'd better use what we have and talk about the issues as we see kids reading all books.
Q. Are there some titles that are especially good for those conversations?
A. I think any book that we read can be used that way, but I think if we find a book that has a strong female character in it, we need to call the students' attention to it. The Babysitter Club books have been knocked, but they're better than the teenage romance where [the girls] wait in the wings for some boy to notice them. At least in these stories the girls are doing things. If kids get enjoyment from them, I would rather have them read those than nothing. A teacher who sees them reading those books can start giving them other things. We can call attention to the books that we want them to read, but when they're reading things that we don't like, I think we need to talk with them about "How did you feel about that character?"
Q. What question do you see as being an important one for secondary and elementary teachers?
A. One is the whole business of how teachers can give support to one another and encourage one another to treat kids as they know they should be treated and not give in to the external pressures of principals or whomever.
Q. Finally, are there any other thoughts that you'd like to share with WILLA readers?
A. I would like to think that all women are concerned about gender issues, but that may not be the case. We constantly need to be reminded. WILLA can play that role through various articles and programs, and not just in our publications, but we need to work together things published in other journals and publications. And, I'd like to say something about the award WILLA gave me a year ago -- the Rewey Belle Inglis Award. I felt very honored by that because it was from colleagues in front of the CEE, the group that I feel most aligned with. I was very touched by that and I appreciate it.
LYNNE ALVINE is Associate Professor of English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches graduate and under graduate courses in adolescent literature, English-teaching methods, and composition.
Copyright 1993, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: Alvine, Lynne. (1993). An interview with Ruth K.J. Cline. WILLA, Volume II, 10-12.