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.