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  • Writer's pictureMaria Vint

Remembering Mike Rose: A Beacon of Light for the Unlikely Academic

Updated: Apr 30

Originally Published to the Nor'easter August 2023



Mike Rose (May 14, 1944 – August 15, 2021)

This summer, we are recognizing the two-year anniversary of Mike Rose’s passing, and even though two years have passed, the void created by his departure is still very tangible. Among the many tributes written, when considering what more could be said about his accomplished life and famously calm and caring demeanor, I question what Mike Rose means to me and how he’s impacted me as an academic and professional. He has shaped the course of my life, both personally and professionally, from reconciling with my experiences as a community college, basic writing, non-traditional undergraduate student to a Ph.D. Candidate in Composition and Applied Linguistics and a full-time writing instructor. To honor his style of the detail-rich vignettes, telling the stories untold, I will share my own story of how he's impacted my growth.

“Shake the imposter syndrome” was one of the last things Mike Rose said to me. Still slightly uncomfortable as a budding researcher, I explained that I was still working on my confidence with publishing. I didn’t know him personally, but in 2019, the first year of my doctoral coursework, and amidst a flurry of scholarly adrenaline, I gathered the courage to email him. I informed him of how he had shaped my academic trajectory and the work I hope to do, and how he had made me view myself with respect. He responded with sincere gratitude when I shared my story crediting him with many of my personal successes.

The conversation continued and I was surprised and overwhelmed by his generosity and willingness to help me. This individual, after whom I had modeled my scholarly approach, was truly engaged and interested in my life and work. He asked about my plans for dissertation research and even offered to mentor me on the data collection process because, as he noted, the listening for and gathering of rich detail can be a tricky process. Because of him, paying close attention to the difficulty of that process will be at the forefront of my mind when I begin.

His personal narrative in Lives on the Boundary showed that there is a space for me in the university as an educator and scholar. When we can see ourselves in the experiences and success of others, success for us feels possible as well. Rose’s experience of feeling educationally marginalized and then reaching the heights he did make me realize that I could be something, also. His struggles were mirrored in my own; I, too, was placed on a type of alternative track in high school, which ingrained ill-formed beliefs about my identity and capability. As a result, I understand and identify with his passion to help others undo these false notions about themselves that were constructed by the social structure of our environment: by others’ beliefs in what we can achieve, by our own beliefs as erroneously established when compared to others, and by societal expectations not aligning with every student’s real-life experiences. 

Through his story and his work, I saw, for the first time, that regardless of beginning my undergraduate journey in a preparatory English class, of feeling out of place in an academic setting due to years of my own experiences of educational tumult, of perceiving myself as inadequate, I have a voice and a perspective, and maybe others will want to hear it one day. Maybe I could change others’ lives for the better, like he did – my ultimate goal. Ironically, as I write this, I’m saying to myself, “Well, obviously not to the greatness of Mike Rose, but still a somewhat successful impact.” Then I remind myself to shake that feeling, as he would implore me to.

His impact reminds me of a famous quote from Milton’s Areopagitica: “A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured upon purpose to a life beyond life.” Rose, in his living presence, impacted so many to their cores. His actions alone, as well as his gentle and caring affect, encouraged others to be better educators and better humans; his words provided eloquent and inclusive clarification of societal and pedagogical stigma and fostered his students’ growth. And, while there is an enormous void created by his passing, his words remain embedded in the fibers of our teaching, allowing his soul and his purpose to be revived in each re-reading, for a truly magnificent purpose to a life beyond life.

The first time I was introduced to Rose’s work was in an Adult Developmental Education theory and practice class, taught by Dr. Barbara Gleason, during my Language and Literacy Master’s program of City College, CUNY. We were assigned: Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance Education - An Argument for Democratizing Knowledge in America. I read each word on those pages with vigor and passion, taking copious notes in the margins.

What struck me about this book, first, was the tone and the language in which it was written. True to his nature and ontology, it was inclusive of all readers. His prose is simultaneously technical yet elegant, rich with detail and not exclusionary or obscuring. The reader does not feel less intelligent while engaging in his work, nor does an anxious aspiring scholar with a disrupted educational experience. My own past didn’t hang over me like a dark cloud; instead, I felt fully a part of the conversation and worthy of acting upon it. This was the first time I witnessed the type of writing I could produce as a scholar.

Also important was Rose’s need to take black and white statistics and paint them in color with the details of the lives that make up those numbers.  It’s easy to say a two-year institution is performing poorly, but one must ask “why?” What is it about the lives and circumstances of the students that contributes to this?

I, personally, was given a second chance, primarily because of a community college. His arguments advocate for my experiences. After almost dropping out of high school because of a turbulent childhood and adolescence, I knew moving straight into full-time work after high school for the purpose of survival was more important for my development and mental health than beginning a freshman year of college. At the age of twenty-three, after working full-time for about four years, I began my undergraduate degree at the local two-year college. Without this type of attainable, accessible education and opportunity for academic preparation, I quite literally would not be where I am today.

While my placement into a preparatory English course was eye opening and provided me the tools to excel in my coursework, it also led me to see myself as lesser than those around me. It wasn’t until I read Mike Rose’s work in graduate school that this negative view began to dissipate when I saw myself in the image of the “student on the boundary” achieving great success. I realized that such developmental classes were designed to make up for those years in high school that for many reasons I did not take advantage of effectively, and I am eternally grateful that they exist. 

I am also eternally grateful for Rose’s more than four decades of contributions. For the true care he had for those who came from non-traditional backgrounds and life experiences. For advocating and bringing to light our struggles for those who are unfamiliar. And, for demonstrating that one can be an effective educator and scholar no matter what background they come from, but also, more specifically, because of their marginalized background.

The work that we do has ripple effects, and we shouldn’t forget the level of humanity that exists in these transactions. Rose created a level of compassion that we don’t often see, or that we forget is possible. The tributes across Twitter and other social media remember him as one of the sweetest, kindest, most caring educators, colleagues, and friends. His legacy sets a new standard by which I am intent to live. His presence on this earth touched so many lives. Countless lives. Like Midas’ touch, Rose’s words transform minds and souls to glow with a vibrant brilliance that they might not have known was already beneath the surface. As for myself, and I assume many others, it sometimes requires influence from the outside to help one discover their potential and/or their place in the world. This is the way Rose illuminated so many. We’ve been handed the torch and our field has grown immensely from his contributions, but now we must take it further and follow his light.


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