Poor Relations

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).

Poor Relations

2 thoughts on “Poor Relations

  • July 1, 2004 at 8:07 am

    Sounds like an interesting article, Mike. I haven’t read it yet, so maybe it addresses what I’m about to say here, but there seems to me one other weird and complicating factor with this notion of “class.” On the one hand, it is easy enough to see comp/rhet folks as either laborers or middle-class because of the nature of our work. Teaching writing means “getting your hands dirty” with student writing, particularly first year student writing, in a way that isn’t as common in literature. And besides that, there are still plenty of literature folk around who don’t think what we do really counts as scholarship or much of anything else. So in that sense, we’re “second-class citizens.”

    On the other hand, in terms of the literal economics of the way the academic job market works nowadays– not intellectual capital but capital capital– composition and rhetoric folks are on the top of the heap in English departments. This is of course particularly true for people who do things with technology and writing, and I think it’s true (basically) because of the laws of supply and demand: there are a lot more jobs in composition and rhetoric and a lot fewer people coming out of those PhD programs.

    I guess what I’m getting at (and maybe this isn’t as much of a part of this article as I’ve seen in other writings along these lines) is this: the argument that comp/rhet doesn’t have any intellectual capital/status in English departments, while somewhat accurate, has a lot less validity to me in an era in which comp/rhet folk have a lot more capital capital and literal job opportunities. Because capital capital and more comp/rhet specialists in English departments helps to establish intellectual capital.

  • July 2, 2004 at 1:21 pm

    Steve, your point about “second-class citizens” is one that’s been made a few times in the WCS-L discussion. Inasmuch as I believe class to be a largely relational phenomenon, I’ll provisionally agree that within the context of the university, compositionists may be perceived as doing the dirty work of the disciplines — but in the broader economic context, such teachers (with their degrees and comfortable working conditions) are solidly members of the professional class, and to suggest otherwise is to obscure some of the cruelest economic inequalities at work in our society.

    As far as the differences between resource capital and intellectual capital go — yes, absolutely, to a degree. Consider how that capital resolves itself, though: many colleges and universities rely on some form of contingent labor to teach all those sections of first-year composition. So while FYC may have a big budget line for all those salaries, the salaries themselves are often quite small compared to those of the full-time professorial labor teaching the more highly valued literature courses.

    Furthermore, as Charles Moran has pointed out, a common administrative practice is to blindly throw tech money at departments, in the belief that the technology will somehow make everything better. Too often, what happens is that all the tech money goes to the computers themselves, none of the tech money goes towards funding actual teacher training with that technology (since those teachers are mostly contingent anyway, and — in my experience — you aren’t going to find many of the full-time faculty much interested in tech training), so you get teachers trying to map conventional teaching practices onto computer classrooms, underutilizing the technology, and the computers wind up in the closet and then Pew comes out with a study every few years blaming teachers for being technopeasants.

    So I guess I’m not as optimistic as you: where you see opportunity, I see squandered resources and continued exploitation. I’m hopeful for the opportunities you describe, but I think there’s gotta be a whole lot of institutional and administrative changes in the ways people think about the purposes and uses of composition and about the purposes and uses of technology before things start to improve.

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