Crowley and Class

Class shows up quite a bit in Sharon Crowley’s “Historical and Polemical Essays” on Composition in the University, though always tangentially, and never concretely defined. Still, to hear Crowley tell it, much of the purpose that composition classes in the university serve has to do with class distinctions, no matter what form of the university we’re discussing (English, German, American; liberal education, vocational education, et cetera).

Crowley spends quite a bit of time on “current-traditional” rhetoric and pedagogy, a term familiar to compositionists but probably not to many other folks, so maybe I’d best cite Crowley’s definition here. “Current-traditional pedagogy,” Crowley writes, “discriminated four genres: exposition, description, narration, and argument (EDNA). It idealized a single format — the five-paragraph theme, which after a brief introduction that stated its author’s thesis, presented three highly prescribed paragraphs of support, and concluded. Students were taught current-traditional principles of discourse through teachers’ analyses of professional examples, and they were then expected to compose paragraphs and essays that displayed their observance of those principles” (94). Current-traditional rhetoric is still prevalent at many American high schools, if my students each semester who have to struggle not to write five paragraphs for every assignment are any indication. Some compositionists associate other demons, such as students’ fear of the first-person pronoun, with current-traditional rhetoric as well, to the point where the term “current-traditional” has become a stick with which to beat ideas you don’t like.

In any case, Crowley suggests that current-traditional pedagogy doesn’t line up well with what I’ve been calling the vocational education model of the university, “since it never addressed the quality of a student’s argument or its suitability to a given rhetorical situation” (95), unless we look at the vocational education model from the perspective of Bowles and Gintis, who suggest that the social roles and subjectivities assigned to students in education socialize them into the hierarchy of the work world. Back to Crowley, though, since this is where it gets interesting. She goes on to point out that current-traditional pedagogy “was extremely important to teachers who worried about their students’ class affiliation. Teachers who subscribed to current-traditionalism obviously thought that observance of its myriad rules might save their students from social stigma, just as they assumed that students’ knowledge of selected literary texts might mark them as members of a preferred social class” (95). Two uses of the word class there: but what sense of class?

From the context, the strongest sense I get is of a cultural definition of class; class as social practices and cultural values. It’s certainly not an economic definition of class except perhaps in the ways wealth and income bear a loose connection to the assumed leisure time necessary to become familiar with such literary texts, in the ways we sometimes associate wealthy cultural groups with habits and manners, and in the ways that the education Crowley can be one of the conditions for inhabiting a certain occupation. It’s certainly not a Marxian definition of class in any sense that I can see. And it certainly seems not to rely on authenticity claims about lived experience to construct class. So, again, class defined culturally.

Crowley then goes on to discuss the classed nature of instruction available at different institutions. “After the turn of the century,” she points out, “a few universities and colleges that employed selective admissions policies refused to teach composition in their required introductory English courses. Yale, Princeton, and a few other elite schools preferred instead to give freshman students a steady diet of literary texts. This practice implied, at least to those who accepted the exclusivist rhetoric fo these colleges, that literary study was suited to students who were deemed to be more capable or better prepared for college-level study. The corollary was that explicit instruction in composition was only necessary for students who were less capable or less well prepared. This meant that the colleges and universities that presumably attracted less capable sutdents had to teach them something other than literature . . . What could be taught, and what was obviously needed by less capable students, according to the logic of humanism, was explicit instruction in grammar, usage, punctuation, and spelling. For those less well bred, correct expression could become the sign of an educated character” (95). Again, note that this is emphatically not an economic rationale, which I bring up only because — on the drive home from school today — I heard, yet again, an economic rationale for improving education. “Our students must be better educated in order to be able to compete in the global economy,” someone said, and I think the economic rationale is the only rationale we’re hearing for education these days. And on the one hand, as someone who’s highly interested in class, I think concerns with economic and material conditions are absolutely essential, and so easily overlooked — and yet, on the other hand, as a teacher, I think there’s so much more to education. But maybe the thing is that you have to take care of the material concerns before you can take care of anything else. Socratic dialogues don’t mean squat when you’re cold and hungry.

Crowley and Class

2 thoughts on “Crowley and Class

  • September 25, 2003 at 8:00 pm

    “Current-traditional” is one of those terms that irritates the hell out of me. I first encountered it in linguistics as a way of describing the kind of grammar taught by those who didn’t study–or at least buy into– modern grammar systems. Then the term gets extended in this way by compositionists to characterize some set of practices that presumably are widespread and presumably not up to date. But most compositionists are data averse, so these claims are based on anecdote and one’s personal institutional experience.

    Like you, Mike, I have the impression that lots of high school programs emphasize the 5-paragraph essay, a form that seems to have developed in the 60s or later. I have no recollection of it in high school or college (completed 1960) or even in my first years as a graduate teaching assistant.

    It’s a refinement of the old intro-body-conclusion, which had it’s expression in the military model of presentation: tell ’em what you’re gonna say, say it, and tell ’em you said it. I’ve speculated that the 5 paragraph essay was a simplified pedagogy developed by teachers in the face of the baby boomers. The schools get overwhelmed by numbers and they find simple, mass techniques. But I don’t really know if that’s the case. It’s another empirical question that could be a great dissertation topic, except I don’t think comp theorists want to do anything heavily empirical.

    I guess my point here is that Crowley’s suggestion that the “current-traditional” practices reflect genteel literacy practices and I’m thinking that’s not a sufficient explanation. Teaching practices are more likely to emerge from specific circumstances than from philosophical claims, IMHO.


  • September 29, 2003 at 8:31 pm

    John, I’m with you on not liking the term — it seems to me to be another data-averse composition inexactitude that, as you say, one uses to express dislike for those “practices that presumably are widespread and presumably not up to date”.

    And I actually had the same sense you did about the 5-paragraph theme, and one semester used my old soldier’s basic skills training manual to show students how the 5-paragraph theme has the same exact structure of the block of instruction on how to clear a jam or call for fire. It showed, I thought, that the 5-paragraph theme is basically idiot-proof (or soldier-proof) and powerful, but also incredibly limited. And also really easy to grade. And I think the power and the template sense and the ease in grading — the simplicity of the mass technique, as you say — are what have made it such a tenacious and enduring form.

    As far as the teaching practices and philosophical claims — I think I’d go back to Plato (I’m with Alfred North Whitehead here in his claim that Western philosophy is a set of footnotes to Plato) to argue that philosophy itself emerges from specific circumstances in an attempt to find something that holds true for any number of specific circumstances. I think teaching, if it’s to have any hope of being something other than purely instrumental, must at times take the long view, and look to theory as well as to the quotidian (and essential) realities of practice.

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