Lindquist and Class 1

My project for the next few weeks is going to be retracing my steps through the readings in composition’s literature on class I did a while ago, to try to piece together a sort of map of the ways our discipline defines class. I’m starting with the work of Julie Lindquist, both because her angle seems fairly clear to me and because I admire the work she’s done.

Her focus, like that of many people in composition who talk about class, is on the working class; her book-length study, A Place to Stand, is an ethnographic examination of the rhetorical practices deployed by the patrons of a working-class bar in Chicago. On the very first page, Lindquist identifies herself as someone who was a “working-class teen” (v), and then describes the Smokehouse — the working-class bar — as a place “where idle learning is imagined as a luxury to be indulged in at the expense of those who have real jobs” (vi). So, as a working-class teen, she defined herself in opposition to those in academia, who don’t have “real” jobs.

This, of course, is a common tension: in the literature in composition devoted to class in general and the working class in particular, the academic’s claiming of a working-class background (and claiming of the subsequent conflict between class background and class position and ensuing deep psychic distress) is a nearly unavoidable trope. What strikes me as odd, then, is the basis upon which Lindquist lays her claim to a “working class” background.


As an adolescent, she tells us, she lived in a “suburban working-class neighborhood” (11) with her single mother and grandparents; while her grandfather is described as a former housepainter, her mother’s occupation is not mentioned. The fact that her mother had attended college is remarked upon as an oddity in the neighborhood — but all of those factors don’t seem to me to add up to any real claim to a teenage “working class” background

I’m more swayed by the claim Lindquist implies on page 14: namely, that moving out of her mother’s apartment and into an apartment with her friend Andrea (the daughter of a university professor) and taking a job as a waitress qualified her as “working class.” (Even this gets modulated strangely: on the same page, we’re told that Lindquist’s mother paid her tuition at a junior college.) So I’m trying to work this through, here: supporting oneself while going to school by working as a waitress qualifies one as working class? I don’t know if I share that definition of “working class” — but I think a lot of people in composition who talk about “the working class” do share such a definition, because it allows them to claim a certain status of authenticity.

I’ll be blunt: I think it would be ludicrous for me to call myself working class. I’ve supported myself by working in a warehouse, yes, stripping down check-imprinting machines, jacking pallets to and from a loading dock; I’ve done courier work; I’ve worked my share of construction jobs; I served for four years as an enlisted man in the Army; I still hold my Class A Commercial Driver’s License and can still change a tire quicker than anyone I know (except for maybe Rob, if you’re reading this, pardner) — but working class? That would be silly. And my gut reaction is that it’s silly for anyone who’s waited tables or worked construction or drove a truck while in school to call themselves working class.

And, see, I think that’s a problem with my perspective, an ideological blind spot. I think it’s my intellectual vanity trying to say, “I don’t need to claim any sort of working-class authenticity in order to be able to think or theorize or talk or write about class; I’m not doing this out of any kind of self-interest.” But the thing is, if I’m working to understand students as economic beings, then I really do need to think about what they do while they’re in school in class terms — and it seems like an inescapable conclusion that what many students do places them squarely in the working class. (I should point out here that I think to claim the label “working class” in academia strikes me as something as a badge of honor: it’s a way of saying, “See, I haven’t been born to this; I had to struggle to get here, unlike all these other academics from middle-class backgrounds, to whom it all came much more easily.” Being working class in academia demands a certain type of American meritocratic respect.)

Of course, a lot of the muddle I’m trying to work through comes out of the blur between class background and class position, and how identity is inescapably shaped by both. Despite the stuff I’ve done in my life and the knowledge of certain types of labor that I hold, I still don’t believe I’m entitled to claim a working-class background, but at least re-visiting Lindquist has helped me think about how and why such claims get made.

More tomorrow.

Lindquist and Class 1

3 thoughts on “Lindquist and Class 1

  • February 2, 2005 at 2:34 am
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    There are a couple of things that I think are at work here, Mike: first, yeah–there’s a body of work that might reasonably lead one to believe that “working class roots” lends a certain authenticity or penumbra of success in the face of hardship to the choice of academe: think of Richard Rodriguez or Mike Rose. It’s (I’m thinking here of Rodriguez in particular) a sort of semiotic cubbyhole in which one might be very comfortable: alienated from one’s upbringing by/in the bookish, contemplative life. It just screams what Rodriguez talked about re: Hoggart’s “scholarship boy.”
    Too, by making a claim to working class roots, there’s an implicit claim of overcoming-of-obstacles that is very much in line with the Horatio Algeresque mythology of America and,as you point out, very much in line with the ostensibly meritocratic form & function of the academy.
    On another hand, there’s also an issue of identity: how many truly working class folks that you’ve known think about class at all, except insofar as recognizing that & theirs are not, never have been, and will probably never be wealthy, or even “well-off”? Going around claiming working-class identity seems almost restricted to those who’ve “gotten over” (and the Gene Debses of the world, I guess). Though I must point out that I feel pretty damned working class, even though neither my family of origin nor my family now really fit that label (lack of income notwithstanding).

  • February 2, 2005 at 11:28 am
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    Mike,

    I’m afraid that this might come across as giberish, but I don’t care. For me the concept of “working class” and the claim to be in it is all about the desire to belong and to feel accomplished. We all want to say that we have worked hard to get where are now and we want credit for it. We all want to associate ourselves with something regardless if the claim is accurate or not. For example, how many times have you heard someone claim that they are part native american? Chances are that they are less native american than any other ethnicity in their family tree, but they still insist on telling people that they are native american. By doing so it gives them the right to claim the origin, to feel oppressed and to act like society owes them something. Hell, I’m part native american but that does not entitle me to speak on any tribe’s behalf. The same applies to he concept of “working class”. Regardless, I’m rambling. Back to the point.

    In my opinion the definitions of “working class” and “blue collar” are constantly confused with one another. What the appropriate definitions should be is up for debate a bit and that is where the problem lies. We are working with socially constructed definitions that are based upon decades old ideologies. If we want to use these terms any more we will need to update the definitions. We are no longer a “blue collar” country even though the founding father inside of us all says otherwise. We have changed to more of a service/social welfare society. The title “working class” applies to so small a percentage in this country that very few people can claim it anymore. My father worked 17 hour days, was gone for weeks at a time and slaved on his job every day as a truck driver to provide for his family. Does that make him working class? What if I told you he makes $95,000 per year, lives in the suburbs, owns a 1960 corvette and 1966 chevy II that are to die for? Would that change your mind. Regardless, my point is if we continue to use outdated terminology to discuss modern society we will always be confused.

    Sorry for rambling and being so long winded. I could go on for days on this one.

  • February 3, 2005 at 3:40 am
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    Pursuing this point is important, Mike. My parents were clearly working class. My mother’s father (an immigrant from Ireland) died when she was 5 (he was a steelworker in Cleveland) and she, her two sisters, and brother were raised by a single mother who took in laundry to make a living. My father’s father immigrated from Hungary, did some farmwork when dad was a baby, and died when my father was about 6 years old. His mother remarried, but my father was often in trouble, being sent to the boys’ farm for truancy twice, dropping out of school, getting a job as a baker, and then later as a sheet metal worker, what he did until retirement. None of my aunts or uncles on either side attended college, though my mother’s brother worked his way up to the vice-presidency of the Cleveland power company. He went to night school–that was before community colleges existed in Ohio.

    My parents’ major purpose in life was to ensure that none of their seven children be working class, and they succeeded admirably. We’re all clearly part of the middle class–and one of my brothers has ended up filthy rich. That’s a point that often seems to escape many compositionists who want to claim working class roots. As college professors, they are NOT working class anymore.

    Because no one in my family had been to college, no one could give me advice or direct me. That was not a hindrance, in my view, but an advantage. I had to figure it all out on my own.

    So I think you are right to query the significance of a scholar claiming working class status as some kind of authenticating experience.

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