Trying to figure out how to update and migrate CSS from MT to WordPress has fried my brain. God, I wish I were smarter when it comes to this stuff. As it stands, I’m probably gonna start seeing semicolons and curly brackets in my dreams and subtracting pixel widths under my breath.
So: something lighter and more accessible. There’s an interesting discussion on the Working Class Studies listserv of an excellent recent article in Pedagogy by Jennifer Beech and Julie Lindquist. I can’t do justice to all the smart stuff that’s been said on the listserv, but Jennifer and Julie’s article, “The Work before Us: Attending to English Departments’ Poor Relations”, is well worth a look. (It’s available on Project Muse, too, if your local institution of higher education subscribes.) Their essay’s “goal is to theorize the position of workers in composition (the position of people, that is — in contradistinction to the position of ‘composition,’ which is a professional category abstracted from the local experiences of workers) as a class position with consequences for the everyday work of English studies” (173). As one might guess, Robert Scholes and Richard Ohmann show up in their works cited; perhaps more surprisingly, Pierre Bourdieu and Bowles & Gintis do, as well, as does a book that none of the libraries around here (academic or otherwise) seem to have, the Downing, Hurlburt, and Matthieu-edited collection Beyond English Inc.: Curricular Reform in a Global Economy, which, according to Beech and Lindquist, interrogates “how the corporatization of the public university is interfering with the critical mission of English studies, producing new tensions between English’s humanistic and vocational functions” (173). You can see why I was immediately interested, and might have to have a look for it on AllBookstores.
In my typical cranky-reader mode, I didn’t quite buy everything the essay asserted, but of course that’s nothing new for me. While Beech and Lindquist note that they subscribe to the “Marxist concept of class as relational” (175), which is quite different from the “gradational” concept of class “where some quantitative measure (‘income, status, education, etc.’) is the basis for the grade” (175), it gives me pause when they assert that “Workers in English departments are, in relation to others in the socioeconomic hierarchy, clearly middle-class professionals” (174). In those last three words, no matter how “relational” they declare themselves to be, they’ve clearly conflated the relational with the gradational: might we look for working-class professionals? Or middle-class laborers? Again, this is the same old complaint I’ve always made, and it’s hardly Jennifer and Julie’s fault. The American discourse around class is muddled and confusing, no matter how clearly we try to express our arguments.
And besides, that’s a tiny complaint about an excellent essay. The essay is a part of a tradition, however, coming out of the work of Richard Rodriguez, Mike Rose, and Victor Villanueva, focusing on the class identities of academics, a tradition that — at this point — is solidly established. In my more irritable moments, such a tradition sometimes seems to me like scholarly navel-gazing: we’re teachers, I want to say. Why are we talking so much about ourselves? Aren’t we supposed to be more interested in our students’ backgrounds, positions, and potentials?
The class identities of students, of course, are much more difficult to talk about than the class identities of teachers. Whether one relies upon a gradational or a relational model of class, the class positions of teachers are more static than those of students, since students are almost definitionally understood to be in a state of relational and gradational flux. So how much does the labor that students perform at the college or university determine their future class position? And how much does the labor that their teachers perform determine their future class position?
Ultimately unanswerable questions, yes. But thinking about them might help to shape our practice. Consider Beech and Lindquist’s scathing critique of current academic labor practices: “the rewards of English department labor are inversely proportional to the viability of the conditions of labor. Just as the material acquisitions of the rich are pointed to as evidence that the rich are more productive than the rest of us and therefore deserve greater rewards, those who are afforded the most advantageous working conditions in English studies — the producers of literary criticism — sustain their privilege by turning out intellectual products that prove their entitlement to such advantage” (179).