CCCC07 E: The Global Economy and Class Identity

Note: I’ve made some corrections in what follows in response to requests by presenters.

I struggled somewhat to follow the highly abstract train of reasoning in Min-Zhan Lu’s presentation. Lu’s talk was more densely theoretical than the following talks by Tom Fox and Joseph Harris, which isn’t a criticism on my part, but an acknowledgment that I had to work harder to follow the complexity of her argument, and in fact failed to follow quickly enough at times — so any instances of incoherence in the following account should be taken as failures on my part, and not Lu’s. Lu began her talk on “Rethinking How We Talk About Class in the Global Free Market” by pointing to higher education’s increasingly prevalent invocation of the language of job security, career advancement, and marketable job skills. These terms, Lu noted, are not self-evident. They are, however, associated with a class of students increasingly subjected to the demands of global capital. If we’re going to develop a pedagogy that takes seriously our students’ economic concerns, we need to address their career goals as well as the increasingly volatility of global flows of capital and people, and in this sense, we would do well to keep in mind the additional meaning of career as unrestrained headlong rush. Lu expressed reservations about the limitations of the conventional stratifying markers of class, and proposed that we look instead to the extraterritorial mobility of the global elite as marker of class distinction. The conditions of the global free market today push the economy towards production of the volatile, the ephemeral, and the precarious, and the extraterritorial careering of the global elite constrains the middle class.

In fact, skilled workers today are increasingly uncertain, and the single most important job skill today is flexibility. Given such a circumstance, Lu proposed initiating writing projects that focus attention on the tension between long-term sustainability work and the desire to share the global elite’s extraterritorial mobility of jobs and capital. Our perceptions of our own relation to extraterritorial mobility shapes our experience of school and work, and we would do well to rethink our relationship to capital instead of chasing it in headlong career. If teachers are to earn the authority to help students with their careers, we need to learn to address the unequal distribution of extraterratorial mobility.

Tom Fox followed Lu with a presentation on “Weapons of Mass Instruction: Guns, Textbooks, and Resistance,” opening with an anecdote about his teenaged son being asked to write a compare-and-contrast essay about written representations of a wealthy person’s situation and a poor person’s situation. The clearly implied point of the assignment, Fox said, was the erasure of difference and the assertion of the universal theme of commonly held human qualities. Universal themes, after all, make good economic sense and save on costs in the educational system: having everything the same gets rid of those untidy outliers that get in the way of teacherly efficiency. This holds particularly true for textbook publishers, who also own assessment systems. The combined textbook and testing apparatus is a multimillion dollar business, Fox noted, and expressed rising outrage throughout his presentation over the corporate colonization of education. As examples, he offered Pearson, Harcourt, and Reed Elsevier, paying particular attention to Elsevier’s parent company’s ownership of subsidiary Spearhead and their arms fairs that sustain the international arms trade (a circumstance discussed by Kairosnews readers a year and a half ago). These publishers set themselves up as gatekeepers, Fox argued, and so stand as an instance of the interests of capital determining who belongs in higher education and what they need to know. What can be done about such a circumstance? We can work in organized groups like the National Writing Project, Fox argued, to empower teachers and continue to engage in a rhetorical war of position with the textbook producers. We can work to introduce diversity and choice into textbook selection criteria, and thereby work against publishers’ impulse to erase difference. We can teach the students in front of us, instead of teaching the textbooks. Fox pointed to his interviews with secondary teachers who refuse to use textbooks in the ways they were designed for, and instead used their knowledge and bravado and the resources of the Writing Project to work against the various sets of hegemonic relations between state agencies and textbook companies, between textbook companies and teachers, and between teachers and students that perpetuate homogenization via the mass-marketing of class materials. Teachers, he argued, are working class, because they don’t own the means of production, and as such, they need the support of college professors and instructors. After all, he concluded, the corporate reform of higher education is coming soon to your campus. Fox’s passion was admirable, but the situation he so thoroughly and sharply critiques is hardly a new one, and so I wondered where his sense of urgency was coming from — and wondering, as well, whether he was at the Bedford/St. Martins party at Tavern on the Green.

Finally, Joseph Harris talked about “The Critics of Self-Criticism at Duke,” describing his situation teaching at a wealthy private institution rocked by scandal. The prevalent view there, he suggested, constructed a university education as a high-end market transaction where value changes hands and the customer is always right, and this attitude became particularly manifest in the aftermath of the Duke rape case. Shortly after news of the case broke (but before the District Attorney was appointed to the case), 88 Duke faculty members (the so-called “gang of 88”) put together what they called a “listening statement” that posed the question “What does a social disaster sound like?” and offered responses to the event from students and faculty, with the responses focusing on the culture on and around Duke rather than on the lacrosse players themselves. While the listening statement made the pages of the Duke Chronicle and a passing mention in the New York Times, and the online reaction — while eventually severe — took a long time to build into a public crisis. Eventually, respondents began to declare their outrage that faculty members would dare criticize the culture of their university, and sent volumes of hostile and angry emails to the faculty involved, sometimes including racist and sexist language and threats. Despite a sexualized campus culture of K-Y parties, foam parties, drunken hook-ups, and “lacrosstitutes,” attempts to criticize that culture, however slight, are decried. In fact, the language, tone and content of the comments represented faculty as technicians whose only job is to teach in the classroom: they should not have any sort of involvement whatsoever in the political or social lives and culture of students. They are expected to float at the edges of campus culture like “spectral geeks” and wholly support what one writer called “students’ best interests.” Apparently, in the absence of felony, nothing about the Duke campus culture needs remedy other than the excessively outspoken left wing intellectuals — and this is now the dominant image of Duke, as a location where even the sexist and racist aspects of the campus culture that students described in the listening statement are to be protected unquestioningly, rather than as a haven for intellectual curiosity.

Bruce Horner served as respondent, and asked as his first question: can we explore the possibilities of class consciousness via the shared experiences of the exploiters, and via the shared experiences of the exploited? Can we look at a shared recognition of class positions? Can class consciousness emerge among teachers at very different institutions? If CCCC can be seen as an attempt to bring together composition teachers from a diverse range of institutions, can class consciousness emerge across such broad gulfs of tenure, geography, and position? Harris offered the first, rather wry response: clearly, a class consciousness has indeed arisen among a cultural elite that feels threatened by the left — but if one is looking for other forms of class consciousness, it’s likely best to look to places other than Duke. Lu’s response was more nuanced: we need to talk about economic concerns, she suggested, in ways that avoid the deeply personal reactions that Harris described, and the language of class as manifested in composition is ill-suited for such a task. Culture displaces economy, with the effect that nobody wants to talk about job insecurity but everybody wants to talk about lifestyle — and this is a political and cultural way of talking about economic situations. That elision of economy into other concerns, I would point out, is deeply characteristic of the way composition talks about culture, and was manifest in some form in all three of this panel’s presentations.

(Jenn blogged the panel, as well, and I was really happy to meet her. Check out what she has to say.)

CCCC07 E: The Global Economy and Class Identity