Class (Meta)

The NYT Tries Class

Just a quick entry to note that I entirely agree with what Donna and Bill have had to say about the New York Times series on class: there’s not much blogging going on about the series because the series is one big yawn, with very little of interest to say on the subject of class in America, and certainly nothing new to add to the discussion other than its reportage on the stories of individual people — which, I’ll admit, lends the story some reportorial weight, but let’s not mistake weight for insight.

The good folks on the Working-Class Studies Listserv have lately been making a lot of smart and sometimes wonderfully snarky comments about the series, as you might expect from experts on class, but since those comments are addressed to a private list, I don’t feel comfortable repeating them here. However, there’s one observation I can’t resist sharing, simply because I so much agree with it: the misrepresentations offered by this poorly-designed interactive graphic are dangerous. The most obvious problem is that the quintile lines offered by the graphic cutting across all categories give the impression that there is a monolithic five-tier system of class, for which somehow adding up or averaging all the options offered will slot you into a solid position. The second problem is that the first graphic implies that class is entirely synchronic — a problem hardly corrected by the later graphics concerning generational mobility of income.

Again, I’m not saying the series is bad: I’m impressed with the way the reporting brings home the concretized, material, embodied effects of class on individual lives for the lay reader, and with the way it again repeats — for those that don’t know — that class mobility has slowed and the income gap between the rich and the poor is getting larger. But this pop-sociological approach seems to borrow quite a bit of its information and approach from the same sources cited in Dennis L. Gilbert and Joseph A. Kahl’s excellent and accessible synthesis The American Class Structure, a book much more worth your while — if you’re interested in sociological approaches to class — than the Times series.

On Egocasting

In her essay “The Age of Egocasting,” Christine Rosen describes the “personalization of technology” by which “the individual’s control over the content, style, and timing of what he [sic] consumes is nearly absolute,” and how such technologies “enable us to make a fetish of our own preferences” (1). Our preferences — as publicly enacted in blogrolls, in “100 Things About Me” lists, in the way we express tastes and preferences and likes and dislikes and praise and blame in weblog posts, in the way we hurry to post our own answers to online quizzes that tell us who we are, in our audioscrobbler and iTunes playlists, in the very weblogs we choose to comment on — are, in their performance and in our self-conscious sense and monitoring of that performance, ourselves. This, Rosen says, is egocasting: “the thoroughly personalized and extremely narrow pursuit of one’s taste” (2).

We’ll return to the issue of the public construction of an online self (via egocasting) in a bit. First, though, I want to turn to the perspectives Thomas De Zengotita offers in Mediated on the individual and social practices and effects of (though he does not use the term) egocasting.

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Personal Branding

I’ve had this idea I’ve been working at from different angles for a few weeks; an idea that feels like the germ of the idea that’s at the heart of my dissertation’s final chapter. In Chapter 1, I argue that the discipline of composition has a really difficult time talking explicitly about economic issues, and that teaching writing with computers is one of the big places in composition that makes economic inequality really, really visible. So I go through chapters on class and economics, and come back to the economics of computers and composition at the end, where I talk about how open source perspectives can help to de-fang the effects of economic commodification in the writing classroom. But I haven’t been able to connect those issues all that well to class, until lately, especially with some prodding from a colleague over dinner tonight.

At Wealth Bondage, CEO Candidia Cruikshanks rages that The Happy Tutor is trying to steal her “brand equity” — said equity, of course, embodied in all that attitude and oh my those boots. Naomi Klein recently argued elsewhere (can’t find the link now — help me out?) that personal identity is itself an act of branding. And I’ve argued that class is the point of articulation between economics and identity. What I’ve neglected to investigate, in my considerations of the (economic?) use value of personal writing, are the ways in which identity/self/persona in and of itself, as enacted in writing, takes on both commodified and non-commodified (market and non-market; monetized and non-monetized) economic value. At Wealth Bondage — perhaps as nowhere else — we see personae qua personae ventured, offered, exchanged, and rejected in market, feudal, slave, and gift transactions. So — rhetoricians, compositionists, bloggers — what are the values of the personal selves you compose and enact on your weblogs? Some of those values are easily commodified: technorati, blogshares, comments; promotion, hiring, tenure. So, too, for students: my professor tells me this weblog entry is worth a C minus. But what about those other types of economic transactions; the non-commodified ones?

And how might those non-commodified values shift when we move from considering the various blog personae of teachers to considering the various blog personae of students?

4Cs: Owning Knowledge

I gave my presentation this morning, along with Krista Kennedy (as read by John Logie) and Charlie Lowe. Charlie was in his usual relaxed, easygoing talking-through-the-points mode, while John did a fine job of reading Krista’s stylistically compelling sophisticated theoretical essay. I didn’t do quite so well, largely because I was trying to talk a point-by-point presentation for the first time; in the past, I’ve always read my presentations from papers, and I do a fair job of that, I think. But my lack of comfort with the talking-through-the-points format was highly apparent in my voice, in the somewhat rushed delivery, and in my hesitation to deviate from those points. As is the case with students whose papers display a marked increase in correctness errors when they grapple with materials or genres unfamiliar to them, my presentation was marked by my delivery’s evidence of my inexperience with the genre. Which is disappointing; with the preparation I put into this, I would have liked to have done a better job.

If you check out the presentation, you’ll see that it’s highly inductive and paratactic, and those qualities are only accentuated by the cuts I made after rehearsing it and having it come out at around 22 minutes: I tried to get rid of the points that seemed least essential, but that resulted in a highly “gappy” feeling in a number of places. What I was trying to do in the presentation was simply to look at ownership issues as connected to student writing through an economic lens, in the hopes that such a lens might help the audience see how student writing — when considered and practiced as “open source” rather than as scarce and solely owned — can give an increased and more diverse valuation to the labor of everyone (students, teachers, researchers, and the various permutations thereof) in the community of first year writing. An additional difficulty, I think, is that the complexity of the theoretical stuff I was trying to present actually really doesn’t lend itself to the and/and/and qualities of parataxis, and is much more easily understood via the subordinating conjunctions of hypotaxis. Which I knew intellectually, but — since I’d never tried to do a presentation like this before — not practically.

On the good side, these points comprise the core logic of Chapter 5 of my dissertation, so I’ve got my revision work laid out for me. I’ll also say that I think my classroom focus served as a nice complement both to Krista’s flights of Deleuze and Guattari high theory and to Charlie’s explicit working-through of the implications of the Open Source development process for composition, and this seemed to play out in the really excellent Q&A that followed our presentations, where a lot of people offered insightful and provocative comments and questions (including several from Bradley Bleck that I couldn’t answer, which gave me considerable material for future thought) linking Krista’s rhizomes, Charlie’s development process, and my own concerns of valuation. So sometime in the next week or so, I’ll be cleaning up the presentation some; right now, I’m grateful to Charlie, Krista, and John, and to all the folks who joined in the discussion.

Doctor Chadwallah (who was apparently attending incognito, and who Krista explicitly referenced in her presentation) offered no questions, to the regret of many who were present.

CCCC Presentation Work

Some of the basic concerns that I’ll need to demonstrate in my CCCC presentation:

  1. Writing, as information, is a non-rivalrous good: what I get from reading a paper doesn’t take away from what you get from reading a paper.
  2. University pPlagiarism policies in higher education, in order to give students the motivation to write, impose an artificial scarcity upon student writing that helps to firmly anchor it as a commodity with economic exchange value. (This follows from Bruce Horner’s attention to the Marxian difference between the use value of student writing and the exchange value of student writing.)
  3. Writing is produced by economically valuable student labor.
  4. Under the neoclassical economic model, students’ upward class mobility is predicated upon their becoming more productive writers/knowledge-workers. (Note that what neoclassical economists call “increased productivity,” Marxian economists call an increased rate of exploitation.)
  5. Just as there is more than one definition of “class,” there is more than one definition of “class mobility,” although both terms bear unavoidable economic implications.
  6. While some associated with the FLOSS movement offer the dictum “free as in speech, not free as in beer” to help others understand the goals of the movement, it should be noted that both senses of the term “free” — gratis and libre — bear economic implications, particularly when understood in relation to the concept of ownership.

So that’s what I’ve been working through lately — it’s also, in very condensed form, the groundwork for my dissertation’s Chapter 5. Which of those, to you, seem to demand the most proof; what have I left out — and what implications are you seeing that I’m missing?

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.

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Big Fat Marxist

In my notes here on working through Julie Lindquist’s excellent book A Place to Stand: Politics and Persuasion in a Working-Class Bar, I’ve tried to point out how Lindquist privileges an occupational definition of class: her observations on the phenomenon of class in America are complex and careful, and she seems to do her best to let the perspectives of her study’s informants shape her conclusions, but it’s also clear that she knows exactly what she thinks about class, and for Lindquist, the individual experience of class is first and foremost caused by one’s relationship to work, by what one does for a living, by one’s occupation. I’ve talked in previous posts about what I see as my evidence for this claim, and about Lindquist’s interesting perspective on the nature of productive work; this post is more just a hodgepodge of some scattershot observations on the book’s fifth chapter.

A few days ago, I noted my interest in the implications Lindquist’s perspective holds for the labor of academics. When Lindquist writes that “Smokehousers — unlike most white-collar workers — are fairly close in space and time to the products of their labors” (89), I think she’s indicating that the productive work of those she names as the working class produces tangible material goods. And this serves to underscore the importance and accuracy of Rob’s observation that our contemporary vocabulary of class is deeply inadequate: the term “working class” is so freighted with the imagery associated with the materially productive laborer that it becomes difficult for us to identify today’s low-status laborers of immaterial production as “working class” in the same sense.

So when Lindquist observes that “the subject of class is rarely discussed as such at the Smokehouse. Class is a felt identity, a logic enacted phenomenologically” (74), I want to think that part of that “felt identity” is the experience of exploitation that transcends the merely occupational definition of class. I think I’m guilty of the same analytical impulse I’m finding problematic in Lindquist’s book: in attempting to separate out the various causal and definitional factors of class, I’m turning everybody (myself included) into class essentialists. Lindquist writes that “Smokehousers will tell you class is an economic state, but the implicit connection in their narratives between upward mobility and social displacement suggests that they experience it as a cultural phenomenon” (75), to which I might respond: are economic states ever not experienced by individuals as cultural phenomena?

Oh, hell. Does that last question just make me a big fat Marxist?

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.

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Proposal Advice?

I’m excited about this call for proposals for an essay collection (scroll down to the very bottom of the page), mostly because the way it seems to ask for a drawing-together a lot of the things that I’ve been thinking about here, and because I think I would be able to put a good spin on it with my computers angle and maybe centering it around a class-based re-examination of Olson’s “Who Computes?” article twenty years after the fact, but also — although it asks about “the category and discourse of class in the U.S.” — because I’m interested that it’s coming from two people with University of Bergen email addresses, and I’ve written a little bit here in the past (with some helpful and generous feedback from Torill) about how American ideas about class and literacy, when connected to the world of the World Wide Web, do some interesting things. (And, although I don’t read Jill Walker’s weblog very regularly these days, the institutional affiliation made me think immediately of her, as well.) So, like, I really want to put something together, only there’s one thing that I’m wondering about: the CFP asks for a one-page CV, and I’m assuming they’re doing so because they’re looking for more published or authoritative figures in the field. And that ain’t me. I mean, I’ve got a chapter in an edited collection coming out, I’ve got a couple pieces under review, and I’ve co-edited a textbook: not much, really. So my question to more experienced scholars out there: how big a deal is that CV when they’re considering proposals? Not that it’s all that big a deal — I’m gonna submit something regardless — but what might your expectation-management advice be?

Two-Year Colleges & Class

John at Jocalo recently posted some extended polemical thoughts about the relationship between composition in four-year universities and composition in two-year colleges. My initial sense is one of agreement with John on many points, and particularly on the point that university-based compositionists hold many unexamined and problematic assumptions about community-college-based compositionists, and that those assumptions have remained troublingly unexamined for a long time, in what might be described as a sort of willful blindness. I won’t here rehearse all the arguments John makes: he makes them far more passionately and eloquently than I could, and his thoughts are well worth reading and considering at length.
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