As a way of getting back into the post-holiday swing of things, I’m going to rehearse some of the things I’ve talked about in the past, and try and draw them together into something resembling a problem statement. This’ll probably go at the front of my Chapter 2, where I try to review the literature in composition on class. I’d be grateful for any pointing-out of elisions, fallacies, misrepresentations, gross over-generalizations, or other critical comments folks might offer.
The histories offered by Raymond Williams (in Culture and Society) and James Berlin (in Writing Instruction in Nineteenth Century Colleges, in Rhetoric and Reality, and in two chapters of Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures) illuminate the ways in which economic, cultural, and institutional change are profoundly interrelated. In fact, a discussion of class in the context of Williams’s and Berlin’s writings might define class as the armature by which culture is connected to economy in the figure of the individual (who, of course, inhabits a multiplicity of societal groups, said groups themselves being sometimes called ‘classes’). Williams illustrates how the economics of industrialized mass production made possible the refinement of taste which defined the nineteenth century ‘cultured’ individual (who was, in part, produced by the programs of writing instruction at Charles Eliot Norton’s Harvard and John Genung’s Amherst). Today, the conventional wisdom is that a similarly massive economic shift is already well underway; a shift from an economics of monolithic mass production to an economics of mass consumption and flexible production. That shift is driving a shift in our conceptions of culture and the individual similar to the one described by Berlin and Williams, although the shift is still underway and its implications imperfectly understood.
We are aware, however, that the shift is simultaneously making heightened demands on some classes of people (including, for example, those with full-time jobs who take online or community college courses in their own scant ‘leisure’ or evening time) while offering heightened opportunities to other classes of people (including, for example, the digerati who construct new forms of online art and hyptertext literature). Furthermore, we ought to understand that the writing work undertaken in our composition classrooms in this changing economic and cultural environment helps to constitute changing classes of student selves. I think there’s an obvious cultural progression from the nineteenth century Romantic individual to the unitary self of Peter Elbow’s expressivism; what seems less clear to me is where the cultural progression from the postmodern individual leads.
Clearly, though, these selves are not merely cultural selves, but economic selves. (Again, that above tentative definition of class as the armature connecting the cultural to the economic feels useful to me.) And the literature of composition has devoted considerable ink to understanding instructors as economic individuals, as demonstrated by the focus on academics from working-class backgrounds in such anthologies as Coming to Class and This Fine Place So Far from Home, and in any number of journal articles on academic labor issues. We certainly don’t have all the answers, but we know what the questions are about instructors as economic entities, and what the parameters of those questions are: position, money, tenure, work, culture, exploitation.
As Ira Shor has pointed out, there is at the very least an indirect link between the working conditions of instructors and what happens in terms of student learning in the classroom. But aside from that link, I’m not certain how economic concerns — as manifested in socioeconomic class — play a part in curricular and pedagogical activity. Certainly, some scholars (particularly those who declare themselves as having an interest in working-class issues) advocate that we ought to take students’ class backgrounds into account when designing assignments and exercises and syllabi, and to pay particular attention to the needs of working-class students. (One wonders if there ought to be institutions of higher education founded on the model of Spelman and Howard, or of Smith and Vassar, but specifically oriented towards working-class students. Or — if you’ll pardon the bitter joke — is that what most composition scholars consider community colleges to be?)
The thing is, such suggestions — that we pay more attention to the class backgrounds of students — focus on economic concerns as existing outside of or previous to the university. It’s unclear how composition scholars think about the work and activity of students in the university and in the classroom in economic terms — or even if they consider such questions at all. When scholars describe some students as “working class,” they are not describing the economic activities of the students themselves, they are talking about the economic framework — the student’s family — in which they were raised. If scholars were to talk about the work of the academy as somehow making students “working class,” then all students would be working class — and so, apparently, scholars who talk about students as being “working class” are denying that the economic activities of students as economic beings within the economic contexs of the university have anything to do with that class position. Apparently, even for people who talk about class issues in composition, college — for students — is not an economic activity, and class is not an economic concern when considered within the context of college.
I think this is a problem.