Class (Economic)

Lindquist and Class 5

I finished Julie Lindquist’s excellent A Place to Stand: Politics and Persuasion in a Working-Class Bar tonight, and as with my past several posts about the book, it’s given me considerable food for thought. Here’s my angle: I think that composition, as a discipline, tends to mostly avoid discussions involving economics when it comes to students — except when we talk about class. And then, even when composition talks about class, we talk about it in a variety of really strange ways that often seem to make every effort to avoid talking about students as economic beings, especially within the context of the classroom, so that the implication is that — while we can talk about “working-class academics” and the exploitation of academic laborers — students cannot ever be economic beings. I still don’t know how or why this is, but what made it particularly visible to me was Charlie Moran’s work on the intersection of computers and economic inequality — and the funny thing is, while that was my starting-point, I’m also looking towards computers and economics as a possible interesting ending-point, with the ways that the reproducibility of information (which is something that happens in a composition classroom, digital or otherwise) is now making our society re-think fundamental assumptions about economic scarcity. And economic scarcity is deeply connected to class inequality.

So one thing I need to work on is mapping the different ways in which composition as a discipline represents class inequality. Julie Lindquist’s work is particularly helpful to me in this regard, partly because of its clarity and sophistication, but also because she seems to have very firm and well-defined ideas about what causes class — or at least what causes the class of those within the working class.

Read more

Lindquist and Class 3

Early on, Lindquist cautions that “In presuming to describe ‘class culture,’ I am assuming that everyday experiences and predicaments are structured (if not determined) by the larger political economy” (5), and then goes on to define class as “the systemic products of a social hierarchy sustained by unequal access to resources” (6). Both statements are interesting for their cautious generalization, and both seem slightly Marxist in their perspective — but of course, in today’s America, I think that even daring to mention the existence of class as a phenomenon could be interpreted as Marxist, because to talk about class in any way is to admit to structures of economic inequality.

So I’ll certainly buy both of those statements, although they aren’t venturing much, definitionally speaking. The telling stuff comes when Lindquist gets into the meat of her study and starts describing her study’s informants to us.

Read more

Lindquist and Class 2

Some more brief angles from Lindquist on how she’s thinking about class: “The experience of class in America is impossible to explain, difficult to render, and dangerous to address. It rests uneasily in the space between performance and evocation” (vi). Now, that first sentence strikes me as a little hyperbolic, and risks a reading as self-praise on Lindquist’s part: look at this dangerous and impossible task I’m taking on. The second part, though, seems to connect to what I was saying yesterday, in that your own class is partly what you say it is. On the following page, Lindquist asserts that class culture exists “between the material and the symbolic” (she likes that ‘between’ thing, no?), and the symbolic side is where the “performance and evocation” take place, I think. Queer theory helped us to see how all sexuality is performative; the important insight Lindquist seems to be getting at here — the one that I was wrestling with yesterday in attempting to connect what I thought about my own class background to the research I’ve read — is that while the experience of class is shaped my material concerns (that’s pretty much a given, I think), the place where class gets weird is in its performance as culture by the people who are situated within those material concerns.

Consider what Lindquist says in the very same paragraph: “It has often been remarked that all Americans, from welfare dependents to corporate executives, think of themselves as middle-class — and the ways Smokehousers speak of their own socioeconomic affiliations further confirm this observation” (vi). In other words, in a space that Lindquist the academic describes as a “working class” bar, the clientele describe themselves as “middle class” while she herself claims the status of “working class.”

Is this not strange?

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.

Read more

Class Rehearsal

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.

Read more

Reading Tinberg

At John’s recommendation, I’m (finally) starting to read Howard Tinberg’s Writing and Knowing in the Two-Year College. I look up to John, and his recommendation is certainly enough for me, but I was talking with a compositionist colleague in the computer lab today, and my colleague — with some puzzlement — asked me, “But why are you interested in community colleges?”

It gave me pause. My initial reaction would have been to say, “Well, with my interest in socioeconomic class, why would I not be?” But what does that mean, really? How might an interest in class incline a university-based graduate student towards an interest in community colleges?

John and Cindy and others have talked about this before, of course, but the institutional blindness that university-based compositionists maintain towards teaching practices in two-year colleges continues to amaze me. Here at UMass Amherst, almost all students (seem to) have the same goal: a four-year degree. Such homogeneity of purpose is at least somewhat useful to me in defining the relatively homogenous economic ends that four-year students see their degrees as serving, but also dangerous, in that it helps students and faculty see both their purposes and the purposes of higher education in general as serving a rather homogenous and unified capitalist market economy. (OK: that conclusion is a big leap, and I’ll leave it open for further interrogation.)

On the other hand, students at two-year institutions constitute a far more diverse population, who envision far more diverse purposes for their educations. Some are there for accreditation, some to earn transfer credits, some for continuing education and career purposes, some simply for financial reasons, and so on. These purposes seem to me to much more adequately fit with the paradigm of the diverse and not-necessarily-capitalist economy posited by J. K. Gibson-Graham. In the very first paragraph of his Introduction, Tinberg confirms both my hopes and my fears vis-a-vis perceptions of the purposes of two-year colleges, naming the two missions of such institutions as being “to provide vocational training and to prepare students for transfer to colleges and universities” (vii). That’s pretty grim: we’re either creating a worker class or pushing students into the fancier schools. Yes, Tinberg addresses schools’ diversity of purposes, but he also sets up (or, perhaps more properly, perpetuates) a scary binary.

But at least he’s explicit about it. University-based compositionists, by and large, seem to me to happily and entirely ignore the “vocational training” aspect, or else take it for granted, as something not worth mentioning. So: is that perhaps due to the relative homogeneity of our classes, as compared to those of community colleges? My dissertation-blinkered perspective makes me want to holler that all of this is so, so economic in nature, and I’d be really grateful for either a confirmation or a reality check.

The Acid of Money

I’ve been thinking here lately about questions of value: how do we determine what something is worth? The question stands at the heart of any examination of class and inequality. I think of the way recent discussions of the value of going to college have largely enacted a commodified dollar-value-only view of education, and the way I’ve wanted (and tried) to contend that there are other values that demand consideration. Bill Maurer, in “Uncanny Exchanges: The Possibilities and Failures of ‘Making Change’ with Alternative Monetary Forms” (Society and Space 21), asks, “Does the ability of money to render the qualitative into the quantitative flatten social relations” (317)? Maurer’s essay, which looks at how using, calculating with, and thinking about alternative monetary forms — his examples are the riba and zakat of Islamic finance specialists and the HOURs currency of Ithaca, New York — restage our economic beliefs about qualitative and quantitative valuation, problematizes this “false dichotomy between culture and practical reason” (318). In a similar vein, Steven Gudeman in Postmodern Gifts contends that “The many cases of reciprocity recorded by anthropologists challenge the idea that material life must be completely organized by market practices” (3): market modes of exchange and non-market modes of exchange, and their associated forms of valuation, can and do exist in a diverse economy.

Before I start sounding too hopeful, I should point out that Maurer sees alternative monetary forms as being “haunted by transcendental value” (332), and this transcendence is what I’ve followed Gibson-Graham in seeing as so problematic in contemporary representations of the economy, as well as in various instrumental representations of technology. Richard Barbrook, in “The Hi-Tech Gift Economy”, seems to completely buy into such conceptions of transcendence, suggesting that internet users “collaborate with each other without the direct mediation of money or politics” and “give and receive information without thought of payment” to the point where, “In the absence of states or markets to mediate social bonds, network communities are instead formed through the mutual obligation created by gifts of time and ideas”.
Read more

Against Capital

In Universities in the Marketplace, former Harvard president Derek Bok quotes Wesley Shumar’s contention in College for Sale that “learning and research have ‘come to be valued in terms of their ability to be translated into cash or merchandise and not in any other ways, such as aesthetic or recreational pleasure. Eventually, the idea that there are other kinds of value is lost'” (Shumar 5, qtd. in Bok 16) and so puts into very concrete terms the ideas I’ve been struggling with in trying to figure out the scope of my dissertation. Many writing teachers I know detest the service model of composition by which the only value for composition is in teaching students how to write good papers for other classes, or in teaching them how to write error-free and communicatively effective business prose.

(On the other hand, this is the model that one respondent named Chris — not the same one who’s posted other comments here — has celebrated at Cindy’s weblog and at the Invisible Adjunct’s. I’d respond briefly that the Chris in question has self-identified as someone whose interests are in literature and who despises teaching composition: in other words, he privileges — in true American fashion — the consumption of texts over the production of texts, and seems unaware of those values of which Shumar speaks, and further unaware that those who do such things as write for pleasure for a public weblog may see a value to that production that he cannot. From Chris’s perspective, Beethoven might well have stopped composing when he began to lose his hearing.)

Most ways of thinking about class involve a hierarchy of valuation: one category is worth more than another, whether on account of the amount of money possessed or the type of work or cultural activity performed or whatever other system one chooses. Composition intersects with class in the multiple valuations described by Shumar.
Read more

Busy Busy Busy

I’m back in the land of paper-grading, and dividing the time left before midnight by the number of papers remaining tonight indicates that I’m probably not going to have anything to write tonight about what I’ve been reading about economics. Sigh. And I can’t believe I volunteered to lead off discussion about one of the texts in the Rethinking Economy seminar on Wednesday: I mean, I’m auditing; I should know better than to feel like I need to do that kind of stuff. But on the good side of being too busy, I came and gave a little talk tonight on class to the comp theory seminar my advisor’s teaching, which was pretty cool. People actually seemed interested.

Anyway. Part of tonight’s tiny insight, that’s kind of a continuation of earlier stuff: I’ve noted repeatedly that most definitions of class seem directly or indirectly to have economic components or aspects. I’ve coupled that to what I’ve been seeing as the problematic ways people talk about higher education having to serve the economy, and the ways that higher education then becomes perceived as a vehicle for primarily economic class mobility. My problem, though, was that a monetized economy — an economy where money is the medium and measure of exchange — commodifies knowledge; it turns learning into a product. The thing is (and I know this is kinda familiar), the economy isn’t entirely monetized: there’s plenty of non-monetary economic activity. Which imples that even if higher education serves the economy, it doesn’t have to do so in a commodified way (although that’s often the way it gets talked about).

The problem with this small insight is that it may make it easier to turn away from concerns of economic inequality. Those concerns are what interested me in class in the first place. But maybe I should ask: what are the relationships between monetized and non-monetized economic inequalities?

On Scarcity

We are asked to understand that competitiveness is important. We are told that accountability is essential in education, lest our students be denied the skills they need in order to compete in a global economy. An economy can’t exist without competition, we’re told: without competition, people will not work hard, they will not innovate, they will not improve productivity. One has to be competitive, or else one will be left out.

What remains unspoken is that competition insures that someone will, in fact, be left out. Competition insures that some family will undergo financial ruin, that someone, somewhere, will spend a winter night sleeping on a steam grate, or shoot himself for losing his job, or take an overdose of sleeping pills for not passing her exams. Competition ensures that someone with less money will do violence to someone with more money precisely because of that difference in the amounts of money they possess.

The commonly given reason for competition becomes evident in that final example: we are made to understand that there isn’t enough to go around. Enough money. Enough employment. Enough land. Shelter. Food. Water. (Air?) As we see from recent discussions of American national policy, there isn’t even enough education to go around: students and schools need to get competitive. To compete. For what? For spaces in the good schools, so one can get a good job, a privileged space in the economy, so one can get enough food, enough shelter, enough money.

By this reasoning, we can see as well that there aren’t enough A’s to go around in the academic economy. We understand that there are a limited number of passing grades.

Don’t we?
Read more