The Chronicle of Higher Education Almanac Issue came in the mail today. I’ve barely made my way into it; tonight I’m looking over the page 4 table that shows, by state, educational attainment, per-capita income, and poverty rate. (The “Attitudes and characteristics of freshmen” table on page 17 looks pretty interesting; the “Attitudes and activities of faculty members” on page 20 less so.) To do some initial rather unscientific work, I looked for the three states with the combination of highest per-capita income and lowest poverty rate, and the three states with the combination of lowest per-capita income and highest poverty rate. (A few states were anomalous: Massachusetts combines a high per-capita income with a moderate poverty rate, D.C. combines a high per-capita income with a high poverty rate, and Iowa combines a low poverty rate with a low per-capita income. Note also that some of the percentages below don’t quite add up due to rounding.)
This is the usual Friday non-dissertational. It’s a really short one this time, but I’ll offer the caveat that it’s gross in a way that I find rather more disturbing that the story I posted last week, like primal scene stuff gone badly wrong. I don’t know where this came from.
I’ll lead off with an observation from Charlie that I really should have put into yesterday’s discussion of the various classes of universities: while I’ve assigned the vocational education model of the university to the domain of capital, and the liberal education model of the university to the domain of culture, Charlie points out that technical and community colleges have very little capital, and old-line “liberal education” schools like Yale and Amherst College have loads of capital. Charlie also offered the helpful advice that if I follow the course I described yesterday — comparing how class works in the discourse of composition to how class works in the discourse of computers and composition — it might help me to set 1982 as the cutoff date for both disciplines, since it’s the year that the journal Computers and Composition was established, and roughly the time that the process model of writing was completely reorienting writing instruction.
I’ve had the difficult task lately of going through my mother’s medical records. She died a year ago September 12 of ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, which includes dementia as one of the symptoms of the rare variant that she had: in short, I watched my mom — a woman with three Master’s degrees, in library science, comparative literature, and management and public policy; a woman who was fluent in French and German and did her Stanford undergraduate senior thesis on Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger — lose her mind over the course of two years. She was 58.
I write a lot here about the intersection of technology and writing. In going through her medical records last night, I came across an observation she made early in the course of her illness to one of her doctors that she had noticed her spelling getting worse because MS Word’s spell-checker was catching more errors in her writing. This was before she had received an accurate diagnosis, when there were conflicting suggestions of psychological and neuromotor problems, and when she still didn’t know what was wrong, only that her speech was getting slower. She’d always taken pride in her writing, and it chilled me last night to realize that the first sign she got that she was losing her mind was when Word’s spell-checker started flagging more errors, when her writing somehow started getting inexplicably worse. I try to imagine myself in her place; imagine what my reaction would have been. The same as hers, I think: confusion and fear.
I hadn’t thought I’d have much to say here about my mom, but this morning I had another surprise when I was looking for a book at Amazon. A few years ago, I bought Lydia Davis’ novel The End of the Story there, and I suppose Amazon’s memory for reader preferences looked at that purchase this morning and decided to throw me a curveball, suggesting that I might also enjoy Davis’ collection of short stories, Almost No Memory. And there on the screen was my mom’s name, under the review of the collection she wrote for Library Journal.
So: hi, Mom. Yeah, I’m thinking of you, and I’ve got Hank’s “I Dreamed About Mama Last Night” on the stereo.
As I understand the genre, a prospectus tells one’s dissertation committee, “Here’s what I’m going to do, and here’s how I’m going to do it.” Beyond that, it also says, “Here’s the background; here are the principal theories; here are the key works and why I’ve selected them; here’s my methodological approach.” Recently, I’ve tried to pin down a couple of possible research questions that I might pose in the dissertation.
- Is the discourse around class more hidden in the sub-discipline of computers and composition than it is in composition in general?
- If I can demonstrate that it is, can I then argue that technology is the cause of such a circumstance?
- Can I establish the discourse around technology as one believable cause for the increased occlusion of class in computers and composition?
Those questions, of course, beg other questions. Questions like: What do you mean by ‘class’? And: Well, even if you demonstrate all this stuff, what can people in the field of composition possibly do about it? I’ll try to incorporate those questions into my thinking-through of this post, which I’ve been putting together since yesterday evening. Consider this a first attempt to lay out a very loose and tiny version of a prospectus; a pseudo-ur-prospectus, maybe.
Via the comments at Languagehat, I’ve stumbled across a gold mine of a resource for my understanding of the multiplicitous American class system. Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s weblog Making Light has an entry on “House, home, and demographic facts” featuring links to the amazingly detailed demographic breakdowns by zip code at MSN House & Home’s Neighborhood Finder: wealth, income, culture, consumptive habits, all according to Tetrad’s sixty-odd Prizm segments. I’ll have to take a closer look, because the Prizm site doesn’t offer the consumptive habits that MSN’s site features, and that I find so interesting: I’m wondering to what degree it’s based on the government census data prominently advertised on the Prizm site. One of the commenters on the Making Light thread mentions the “iMark database”, which I wonder if I might be able to get to via the university library (a quick try says no, but I’ll ask the reference librarian tomorrow, and also see what Charlie might suggest). A couple of the commenters there also question the accuracy of how well the classes fit the zip codes, which I’m not nearly as interested in as I am in the classificatory system itself. Teresa, Languagehat — y’all have made my evening. Thanks.
Kingston writes that “If classes are real, you should be able to identify their ‘members’ and show that these people have distinctive experiences. I argue that you can meaningfully talk about, say, ‘working-class culture’ only if significant numbers of people, defined by some criteria as ‘members’ of the working class, actually do share particular cultural orientations. Similarly, it’s reasonable to say something like ‘the capitalist class pursued its interests’ only if identifiable ‘members’ of this class actually did something in concert” (23). Let’s examine this homogenizing argument a little more closely: what if, for example, we replace “classes” with “sexes” (not “genders”: I’m trying to keep my example as reductive as Kingston’s argument) and “the working class” with “women”. Do “significant numbers” of women, defined by chromosomes or plumbing, “share particular cultural orientations”, even if we consider only American culture, to the point where we see “women” as a unified whole? Can we come up with a list of “womanly” cultural characteristics that exists as anything other than stereotype?
Paul Kingston, in The Classless Society (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), offers as his thesis the argument “that groups of people having a common economic position — what are commonly designated as ‘classes’ — do not significantly share distinct, life-defining experiences” (1). Yeah. I think you can already figure I’m gonna have some problems with this guy. I’m looking forward to seeing how he disregards “worrying about how you’re going to make rent each month” as a “life-defining experience”. To attempt to be a little more fair, Kingston says that the “use of class language is not analytically rigorous or precise,” and “the reality of economic inequality, even substantial degrees of it, does not necessarily imply the existence of classes” (2). So my biggest difficulty with him is in his suggestion that economic inequality is the only index of class. The Tutor, with his questions about Roger Clinton and Elvis, knew far better, as do most Americans (but not, apparently, Mr. Kingston): class is more than just money.
I did a quick burn tonight through the several chapters in The World Wide Web and Contemporary Cultural Theory, edited by Andrew Herman and Thomas Swiss (New York: Routledge, 2000), that seemed like they might be useful. Not much that was new, really, but one semi-startling connection that I’ll save until last.
In reading Patricia Bizzell‘s essay “Marxist Ideas in Composition Studies” (in the 1991 MLA collection Contending with Words, Harkin and Schilb, eds.) (caution about that second link: JAC really needs to do something about the miserable quality of their OCRed text), I’ve come across a quotation from Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious, describing Marxism’s “demystifying vocation to unmask and to demostrate the ways in which a cultural artefact fulfills a specific ideological mission, in legitimating a given power structure” as a “demonstration of the instrumental function of a given cultural object” (Jameson 291, qtd. in Bizzell 54). I find this provocative for two reasons: (1) the “instrumental function” is what I’ve been assigning to the mainstream view of computers, and here I suddenly find it associated via composition theory with Marxism and Jameson, and (2) the quote describes exactly what I’ve begun to construct as my “demystifying” mission for the prospectus and the dissertation. And, in fact, what Bizzell means when she says “Marxist Ideas” mostly has to do with Althusser’s revision of Marx’s notion of ideology.