David Seitz’s essay details the results of his classroom study at the University of Illinois at Chicago of “how students from working-class backgrounds” in a “research paper course” (66) react to some of the agendas of so-called “critical pedagogies” as enacted in the field of composition. “Critical pedagogy” as Seitz uses the term seems to extend beyond Paulo Freire’s Christian Marxist (and Gramsci-influenced) philosophy of education as an always political tool for rational human subjects to understand their own oppression and through individual and collective critical praxis overcome that state of oppression and move to an ongoing process of liberatory action, and incorporate elements of poststructuralist theories about the positioning power of language, Derridean theories of difference, and first-generation Frankfurt School critiques of “mass culture”, bourgeois ideology, and alienated labor: in other words, Seitz’s “critical pedagogy” is an odd mishmash of influences that seems to know that it is critical of something but it isn’t quite sure what, and it’s never quite clear from what position the critique is being made. (And Mike pulls off yet another horribly subordinated sentence, without having read Cicero in months: apologies for all those nested clauses there.) That said, Seitz does do a good job of starting to unravel some of the strands of class twined and knotted together on both sides — teacher/academic (conflation Seitz’s) and student — of his study, though the analysis is strongest when it focuses on students, and shows some blind spots when he looks at the vague class positions he assigns to teacher/academics.
Seitz observed Rashmi Varma’s course “In Our Own Words: Women In the Third World” and later interviewed several of the course participants. While he constructs the course as a course in learning to write, almost all of the evidence he uses in his essay comes from students’ spoken discourse (either in-class or in post-course interviews) discussing the subjects on which the course’s writing focused. Seitz describes the course participants as “mostly urban commuters, primarily African-American, Asian (of different nationalities and generations of immigration) and ethnic white of working-class background” (67). Already it’s interesting to note that only the white students are classed: we are presumed to know what class “African-American” and “Asian” “urban commuters” would belong to. After setting the scene, Seitz discusses the situations of two students, Diana and Mike, who seem in Seitz’s view to be members of the working class: Seitz discusses them as a part of a group of “white working-class students” (68), Diana talks about her neighborhood as “blue collar”, and Mike’s father and grandfather are cops (67). Class here seems to be related primarily to occupation, and by occupation to wealth and income, although Seitz complicates matters when he describes the “dominant values of their neighborhoods” (68) as “conservative” (69) and as being perceived as “racist” by the students themselves (68). Seitz himself seems to perceive the students as racist, noting their “class solidarity along traditional lines” when “They railed on about affirmative action, the ties between race and crime in their neighborhoods, capital punishment, and the general disempowerment of working people” (68), and thereby attributing “racist” and “conservative” values to the working class as a whole. One wonders, particularly given Seitz’s earlier care to distinguish white students but not African-American or Asian students as working class, whether he believes the working class to be constituted entirely of white people, or whether this is simply an example of the pillarization of race and values intersecting with the working class.
Seitzs describes an apparent shift in Diana’s expressed “conservative” values between a class discussion in April and a small-group interview in June, and perhaps the language used to describe the shift is most interesting, invoking a startling (given the context) metaphor of money and exchange: Diana’s expressed point of view becomes, according to Seitz, “linguistic currency for the academic marketplace when in the critical classroom” (69). Why the cash metaphor here? There’s an implicit critique in Seitz’s words, suggesting that Diana’s rhetorical move stands somehow opposed to his goals as a critical pedagogue, and suggesting also that Diana is using language to exchange something, and I have to ask: if this is an exchange, what does Diana purchase with her linguistic currency? Does her language cross the teacher’s palm “as the authoritative discourse necessary for traveling in some privileged verbal-ideological world” (69) and grant — as Seitz’s use of the words “authoritative” and “ideological” suggest — a sort of class mobility in terms of political power? Consider the context: Seitz uses the first-person plural “we” in connection to “middle-class institutions”, apparently suggesting that “our critical positions” as “critical teachers” are somehow middle class at least by virtue of our association with the institutions where “we” teach (65), and yet the students who attend UIC are apparently not middle class.
On what axes of class, then, do “middle-class” “critical teachers” differ from the “working-class” students? Most obviously by education and by occupation, I’d suggest (and therefore also by wealth and income), since students seem here to be constructed as pre-occupational and in the process of education. Also, the profession of university instructor may carry a different prestige value than that of university student. But I’d argue that the most significant differences in terms of class vectors between middle-class teachers and working-class students for Seitz are the differences in terms of values and class consciousness, both of which seem deeply connected to Seitz’s privileged term “critical”.
Seitz’s clearly oppositional references to “the dominant myth of the American individual divorced from socio-cultural and economic factors” and “dominant perceptions of individualism” (66) imply that a Freirean collective class consciousness is an essential component of a “critical” perspective, and “critical” perspectives as constructed by Seitz — as one might expect from a synthesis of theories so influenced by Marxist and leftist thought — seem to entail not so much a method of inquiry as a politically anticonservative, liberal, or even radical political position. But the insights offered by such a position’s opposition to “mass culture ideology” (65) and to the “cultural relativism warranted by consumer-based ideologies of individual choice” that “lets students off the hook when it comes to developing and taking positions on complex and contentious issues of culture and power relations” (67) apparently do both obligate and bestow political agency, since Seitz’s phrasings suggest that students really ought to develop and take positions. This obligation becomes a part of the “academic acculturation” (68) that requires the student to change herself to fit her education by adopting the political power, class consciousness, and values of the leftist political values associated with the “middle class” institution. This construction is, to say the least, interesting, since we know that it would be difficult by any stretch to construct the political orientation of the middle class as leaning primarily to the left.
I’m being rather disingenuous here, of course, since I know that many composition teachers speak of fostering an open and democratic classroom with room enough for a wide range of political perspectives. In fact, I’ve heard well-meaning composition teachers use the term “critical” in association with a point of view or method of inquiry that somehow transcends class and politics. And yet when Seitz opposes a “more critical discourse” to the “conservative” Diana’s position historically associated with the political right concerning “the godly origin of AIDS” (69), the leftist ideological underpinnings of critical pedagogy become somewhat more apparent. I find the critical/right opposition to also be made manifest in the way in which Seitz opposes “University and business administrators” who “often speak of ‘diversity,’ connoting a level field in which all contributions are equally welcome” to “critical academics” for whom “difference as a term. . . evokes issues of hierarchy and power relations” (66), paralleling the ways in which conservatives frequently argue that America is “already equal” and liberals frequently argue that there are large inequalities of power and privilege in contemporary American society. Interestingly, critical academics are presumably members of an occupational class — the professional class — similar if not congruent to the occupational class of administrators, so the class differences beyond those of values seem to lie in prestige (is it more prestigious to be a university administrator, a business administrator, or a faculty member? It depends on your own class and politics, I think), in income and education, in relations of production (instructors are clearly academic labor, and administrators appropriate and distribute surplus value), in political power (administrators make policy), and — for the critical teacher — in class consciousness, of course.
So that’s the first five pages of the essay, which is enough for tonight, since I’ve got work I need to be doing. I’ll work through the second half of the essay in the next day or two, and try to offer some meta-conclusions about what doing this sort of class analysis might mean for my dissertation.
Seitz, David. “Keeping Honest: Working-Class Students, Difference, and Rethinking the Critical Agenda in Composition.” In Under Construction: Working at the Intersection of Composition Theory, Research, and Practice. Farris, Christine and Chris Anson, eds. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1998.