Month: April 2005

Clancy’s Question

Clancy asks, “Why aren’t you making your own comics? You could really do some cool, creative ones, I bet.” To which I might offer the sincere (albeit smart-alecky) response: well, why aren’t you writing fiction, Clancy? You could come up with some cool, creative stories, I bet. And I’d enjoy reading them.

That’s only part of an answer, though. Another part is that I’m a rotten and contrary bastard, stubbornly opposed to doing stuff I see other folks doing, whether it be quizzes or comics.

But, well, Clancy, I’m grateful, and you’re too kind: that was a generous comment. Here’s page 1 of what might turn into a six-page (or longer?) response.

More on the Middle Class

Lynn Bloom begins her 1997 JAC essay “Teaching My Class” with a declaration: “I was born to teach.” The autobiographical history she offers indicates that, for her, class and history are not contingent or constructed or socioeconomically produced, but rather that class is destiny. As I implied in my previous post about Bloom’s work on class, this position conveniently absolves Bloom of any responsibility for attempting to remedy class inequalities: if class is destiny, then one need not bother worrying about the plight of those in positions less fortunate, since they — like Bloom — were born to their lot. It’s a wonderful rationalization of class privilege, and Bloom would likely find herself quite at home in a caste system — supposing, of course, she were born a Brahmin rather than a Dalit.

But what is to be done about those unfortunate enough to not have been born teachers, to not have been born Brahmins, to not have been born middle class? Bloom’s essay implies that we must follow through on “our” desire for “our students to share our class values” (210), and, in fact, make them share our class values.

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Post-poned; Poetry

I’d been reading and writing a lot, trying to gather my thoughts for a longer post about labor, about class, about students, about economics, but Donna’s helpful comments have got me revising those thoughts some, so that longer post will likely wait a day or two. Still, it’s April, a good enough excuse for the poem that follows, after which it’s time to shine the boots and then to bed.

The Hand

Mary Ruefle

The teacher asks a question.
You know the answer, you suspect
you are the only one in the classroom
who knows the answer, because the person
in question is yourself, and on that
you are the greatest living authority,
but you don’t raise your hand.
You raise the top of your desk
and take out an apple.
You look out the window.
You don’t raise your hand and there is
some essential beauty in your fingers,
which aren’t even drumming, but lie
flat and peaceful.
The teacher repeats the question.
Outside the window, on an overhanging branch,
a robin is ruffling its feathers
and spring is in the air.

Generational Economics

We had a guest lecturer come and give a talk a couple weeks ago, and I had the opportunity to ask him a question about his work and its economic implications for the work performed by students in the writing classroom. His response — which eventually led to a comment on the work of James Berlin — really got me thinking. Basically, my comment was that — with a very few exceptions — the only way composition can address the economic aspects of class within the writing classroom is by talking about the class of teachers and their economic labor. In other words — and I know I’ve said this before, but I’m going somewhere different with it this time — compositionists (except John Trimbur and Bruce Horner) do not discuss the labor of student writing in economic terms. In my question, I tried to set this difficulty within the context of our economic shift from mass production and mass consumption to distributed or individuated production and consumption.

The respondent suggested that James Berlin, like himself and other prominent compositionists of their generation, spent most of their lives within an economy of mass consumption and mass production, an economy with three brands of car and three television networks, an economy wherein all economic transactions were monetized transactions. Hence the reason why the labor performed by the teacher in the classroom can be constructed as economic by members of that generation, while the labor performed by the student cannot: the labor of teaching is monetized.

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On Wealth

Sometimes the New York Times gets it wrong, as with Bruce Bawer’s recent ridiculously myopic piece asserting that Norway is not a rich country because Norwegians bring their lunches to work. OK, I’ll go a step further: this isn’t just myopic, it’s stupid. Percentage of the population in Norway living below the poverty line: zero. Yes, that’s right: zero percent poverty. Percentage of the population in the U.S. living below the poverty line: twelve. Yes, that’s right: nearly one out of every eight people in the U.S. lives in poverty. One in eight, Bruce. The Gini index of the distribution of family income as a measure of a nation’s economic inequality goes from 0 to 100: if income in a country is distributed perfectly equally, the Gini index is zero; if income in a country is distributed with complete inequality, the Gini index is 100. For economic inequality, Norway scores a 25. Gini index for the U.S.? 45. Yeah: our national economic inequality is on a par with that of Kenya, Uruguay, and Uzbekistan. Apparently, Bawer is happy to see 2.3 million homeless Americans, as long as he can get himself a lunchtime cheeseburger at Applebee’s.

And sometimes the New York Times gets it right, as with Guy Trebay’s recent Fashion & Style piece, “Who Pays $600 for Jeans?”: the answer apparently being, “Lots of people.” According to Trebay, “blue jeans have suddenly shed their proud proletarian roots and turned into what retailers call a status buy,” and so-called “luxury” denim is now common: “jeans with price tags of $200 are now everywhere.” But what does $200, or $300, or $400 get you in a pair of jeans? In part, it gets you — and this is where things get, economically speaking, kinda freaky — “special treatments that abrade, distress and generally torture a pair of trousers until it has achieved just the right luxuriantly ratty patina of something that has been dragged behind a truck.” OK, let’s think this through: jeans are a classed economic artifact, but their class status is changing. Barry Schwartz is quoted in the article as pointing out that “Every consumer decision now carries with it class and status implications in a way it didn’t used to.” Indeed. But when one pays for jeans that are marked as being no longer new — as having a history in that “luxuriantly ratty patina”; as having an age — then one is paying for work time made fabric. Their value is a quality realized in the time and labor (performed by someone else, not the wearer) that produced their experiential history, and their value is then publically displayed as a $200 (or $300 or $400 or $500, you get the idea) badge of class distinction. As Trebay notes, it’s “like the punch line to some elaborate Veblenesque joke”: these jeans represent the commodification of everyday lived experience in precisely the same way that paid housekeeping services turned the labor of housework into economic labor, and in precisely the same way that offering term papers for sale made the labor of education into economic labor. Luxury denim makes experience itself — the embodied passage of time — economic. Consider, then, the article’s closing quotation from Lawrence Scott: “No matter how good the wash or the detail or the label, if it doesn’t look good on a behind, it won’t sell.” Indeed, and that’s the message: class, via your body, is destiny. Even if it costs a lot more.

So, class, your homework: using quotations from these two articles, as well as from Harry McClintock’s “Big Rock Candy Mountain” and the Dead Kennedys’ “Kill the Poor”, compose a brief essay describing why America Is Number One.

Middle Class Blindness

To further the fleshing-out of my dissertation’s Chapter 2, I recently revisited Lynn Z. Bloom’s October 1996 College English article, “Freshman Composition as a Middle-Class Enterprise.” It didn’t make me as mad as it did the first few times I read it, but for me, it remains a deeply problematic essay, replete with contradictions, inconsistencies, and logical non sequiturs. Still, there are things to like about it, including Bloom’s remark that “Although class, perhaps more than any other feature, forms the basis for much of what the profession as well as the general public expects of freshman composition, the term is virtually absent from the titles and key-word indexes of non-Marxist professional literature and — even with Marxism factored in […] — seldom found in the composition data bases for the past quarter-century” (656). I agree, and Bloom’s point contains much of the argument I’m trying to make in my first two chapters: as a discipline, we don’t like to talk about class. I’d add a second point, however, to the point Bloom makes: when we do talk about class, it’s class without economics — and Bloom’s essay stands as a preëminent example of class talk that elides economic concerns.

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The Disordered House

A troubling narrative in six stanzas, composed of sets of sentences taken from J. Madison Watson’s 1876 National Elementary Speller: A Critical Work on Pronunciation; Embracing a Strictly Graded Classification of the Primitive and the More Important Derivative Words of the English Language, for Oral Spelling; Exercises for Writing from Dictation; Prefixes Affixes, Etc., Etc.

Image from a woodcut by Andreas Rosenthal.

abstract woodcut

Note the affinity of those articulate sounds.
Observe his agility, or activity.
Range your artillery on that gentle acclivity, and summon the city to capitulate.

The respondent made a laconic speech in favor of his remonstrance.
After taking the narcotic, I was unconscious.
I saw a large quantity of halibut on the quarantine grounds.

Her shyness and the dryness of his remark verified the report.
Her betrayer delayed his return.
His boyish freaks destroyed my enjoyment.

Rescind that prolix law.
Omit the quadrille.
There will be an eclipse of the sun within a month.

The scene is imaginable, describable, and comparable.
The question is debatable, and the decision reversible.
The fire is singeing that valuable dress.

There is a monstrous lobster in the hogshead.
I saw some holly in the forest.
I often offer a volume to the scholar.

Various Anxieties

My dissertation’s first chapter is close to done. With two different drafts on understanding student writing as economic activity to be put together for Chapter 5, I’ve got a solid start there. Chapter 2, my overview of the various ways rhetoric and composition talks about class, is about halfway done. But I’m stuck in my thinking about Chapter 3, which was originally intended to connect Bourdieu’s relational multiplicity of classes to Gibson-Graham’s diverse model of capitalism: it feels like the logic just isn’t working, and it feels like it strays too far from the context of the writing classroom. I’d originally thought that I could simply shift the chapter’s focus a bit to a look at how the concept of class functions within the new distributed economy (i.e., distributed production and consumption rather than mass production and consumption) and connect that to what I see as James Berlin’s somewhat superannuated Marxian understanding of the connections between composition and economics, but that still feels like it’s too far from the writing classroom. I mean, I’m doing a dissertation within the field of rhetoric and composition, but so much of my focus on the new distributed economy as context seems so tough to connect to actually teaching writing, and so I’m feeling like I’ve wandered out into the wilderness here.

Other stuff on my plate: working on CCCC proposals, and I’m applying for a university dissertation fellowship, for which I need to draft a brief personal statement, which is — in terms of genre — kind of a weird document. As best as I can understand it, the statement should a (very) little bit about me and my background, and a lot more about why I’m doing this research and where it’s going. So I’ll bring up my experience as an enlisted soldier in the Army who used the G.I. Bill to fund my education, and my undergrad experience moving from a very expensive private university to a community college to a public state university, as my initial experiences of the intersection of class and economic issues with higher education and part of my motivation for undertaking this dissertation project. But then the rest of it is me saying why this dissertation project is valuable and important, what it’ll contribute to my discipline and to the academic community, what might follow it — so, yeah, right now I’m feeling a little anxious about essentially having to justify my academic existence. And part of me (with the sudden paranoid worry that somebody who’s on the fellowship committee might read this) asks, “But I really like teaching, too, so am I really sure I even want this fellowship?” Well, yeah, sure I do, and one hopes that ambivalence is no great crime: ultimately, I’ll be happy if I get it, but happy as well if someone else is more deserving.

All right: enough whining. To work, to work.

About the Tools

In comments, John writes:

I will agree that we haven’t developed many good tools for helping students re-enter their word-processed drafts. Or, perhaps more accurately, Microsoft has not incorporated the kinds of tools that writing teachers might recommend. There’s an interesting question: why hasn’t our profession (and groups like CCCC and WPA) found a way to challenge Microsoft to incorporate useful teaching tools into Word?

To which I want to say: I like the sentiment, but no, no, no, no, no. Don’t teachers who employ digital technologies in the classroom already do enough unpaid sales and marketing work for Microsoft? Aren’t we already doing more than enough to lock ourselves into using the tools of big corporations so that they can wring ever-increasing amounts of cash from our educational institutions?

Charlie Lowe is doing really good and important work with the open source community on developing digital tools for writing teachers, and the open source community is likely to be much more responsive (or at least responsive for the right reasons) in terms of developing those digital tools than Microsoft. Please, let’s get away from this logic that favors the relentless increase of privatization.

Poetry Month

Following the lead of many, many others, I’ll offer one of my favorites, from my favorite poet, Mark Strand.

Eating Poetry

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.

The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.

Their eyeballs roll,
their blond legs burn like brush.
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.

She does not understand.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
she screams.

I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.

There’s another I’d offer, one for the girl at my school upon whom I harbor a quiet crush, but those are best kept private and close.