Big Mac, the Heart of Whiteness, and Composition Studies

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I recently spent a good deal of time reading the last year’s issues of one of the prominent journals in my field, rhetoric-composition studies, and found myself unpleasantly surprised.  There was, of course, the usual error in representation of a black student, in this case an adult returning student whose vocabulary of her writing process was described as simplistic (the researcher did not culturally interrogate the student’s vocabulary) while a white male adult student was described as sophisticated.  I wasn’t surprised by that, however.  It certainly wouldn’t be the first time a white researcher called us simple and it won’t be the last time either.  I was a bit taken back, however, to see two articles in the same year about ONE writing program.

Since we are talking about 16 articles for the whole year of the journal, two articles, not just about the same college or from researchers at the same college, BUT two articles about the SAME PROGRAM accounts for more than 10% of the year’s content.  I am not an editor and never want to be since it is excruciatingly arduous work.  My problem here is with the school in focus and with how the editors of my field understand, in contrast, colleges that serve working class students of color.  And since these editors were selected “democratically” by peers in the field and articles are peer-reviewed, these editorial choices cannot be regarded as merely individual phenomenon.

hithereI have always worked at schools that serve large or ONLY serve working class, first-generation, working, and/or racially marginalized students. And for as long as I have worked there, I have gotten editorial and peer responses across the board that question how THAT student population, or how the university where I work, is relevant to the kind of classrooms most compositionists see— white middle class kids.  The problem is that this is a lie.  White, middle-classness is not what MOST colleges and universities today look like and it is not going in that direction either.  This is merely a white myth that the field maintains as part of its possessive investment in whiteness, to riff off of George Lipsitz.  Given the activism, widespread outrage, and speak-out against our current student debt crisis, it is unfathomable to me that we are so ahistorical and still choose to see colleges and universities as the sole bastion of the elite.   Casting today’s college student population as white and middle class serves political and ideological needs, not statistical needs, and does the work of maintaining existing white social networks (see Robert Jensen here).

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big_mac_meal

This university writing program that saw two articles in one year simply isn’t relatable to the kinds of universities where most of us work so why the need to keep casting such spaces as the model?  Let me break it down.  I won’t name this university, I’ll just call it MidWest Big Mac, so as not to retract from my larger focus.  Midwest Big Mac is a selective public university, a very large research-extensive university.  Only them 1 or 2 flagship state universities across the country can relate to THAT!  So, off the bat, we are talking about 60-80 colleges and universities.  That’s just NOT where the majority of us teach.  In the past ten years, 4.7% of the undergrad student population at Midwest Big Mac has been black, 4.4% Latin@, and 0.2% Native American.   If you are at a school that is trying to keep its demographics in keeping with the national demographic or a school whose population reflects a local or historical population, you cannot relate to this school.  25% of admitted students had a 4.0 high school GPA and most of the students scored above 1700 on their SAT.  97% attend full time with their first year retention rates at 96%. Given the conferences and consultants who are all focused on the singular experience of the first-year experience and general retention, these statistics put you in the elite ranks, not the common ranks.

At 26K tuition per year with room and board, Midwest Big Mac will cost a family/student at least 100K by the time of graduation.  Even if that is relatable to many universities in the country, here is something that won’t be. With an endowment of $8.4 BILLION at the end of the 2013 fiscal year, MidWest Big Mac does not seem to feel the effects of the recession.  It is the second-largest endowment in the nation among public universities and the seventh-largest among all U.S. universities.  Only 6 other colleges can relate to you, MidWest Big Mac!  And yet the premier journal in my field constructs this location as the predominant college composition experience.  If you were ever wondering how a discipline maintains its whiteness or how educators maintain a system that is completely non-responsive to non-white, non-middle class, non-elite peoples, I encourage you to  think of this example.

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Academic Culture vs. Educational Change

Popular meme created by college students

Popular meme created by college students

In my first academic job, I arrived after a 2-3 year commission of faculty who evaluated that university’s core/ liberal arts curriculum.  That commission wrote a report detailing what the challenges were.  The administration reflected on that report for another year. I was later assigned to a new committee that would discuss the commission’s report.  That took another two years.  When I left that committee and university, a new committee was designed to come up with a report that outlined a plan on what to do next.  5 years of students graduated and nothing changed; it looked like the next five years would promise more of the same.

I noticed some strange stuff in my first year of department meetings when I was an assistant professor.  I once had a question about students’ progress in the program (which was a certification program) so I saw my question as vital and requiring an answer… as in, ASAP.  It was a two-hour meeting with lots of discussion but I was confused by the end and said as much.  I had class the next day and needed to tell my students something and needed to ACT on a decision.  So at the end of the meeting, I asked: what did we decide here?  The answer was this: that we need to keep talking about this.  In the three years that I was there, I never got any answer to that question; we just kept talking. I stopped asking and got annoyed with even listening since the circuitous, nit-picky-do-nothing-and-go-nowhere dialogues just gave me pounding headaches.  I designed my own process with my students in my classes, processes that the department could have learned from and adopted had folk not spent their time trying to standardize a curriculum that couldn’t work. When I realized there was no way to do real or important work in that space with infrastructural support– whether it was from colleagues, the chair, or upper levels of academic administration/management— I left.  It was a good call on my part too; with no sense of urgency or political vision, the department has all but folded now.

Popular meme created by college students

Popular meme created by college students

I still remain stunned by the unwillingness of faculty to fight, to see education as a way to critically intervene in the world, to think politically about what literacy and learning mean in the 21st century, or to actually engage polemics and research on higher education and learning.  It’s frightening, especially since the current educational system we are in is one predicated on our demise as teachers.

This kind of culture in the academy was just not something I could get used to:

  • The kind of culture that says everything is okay and, if not, we can just ignore everything, make gradual changes, or just talk for a decade (I mean this literally) about what we will do.  There’s a kind of white bourgeois privilege here that does not imagine there is an urgency or danger to other people’s livelihood and progress when all you do is talk and stall.  I am reminded of that infamous text that seems to populate all composition textbooks: Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  Bourgeois “progressives” are still all about waiting while other people suffer.
  • The kind of culture that says let’s just find a way to co-exist with the existing social forces, even if we do not want to.  I hear this kind of selling-out from many white liberals in relation to assessment and standardization in schools today.  I find it utterly irresponsible…and stupid.  What exactly do we think black communities have been doing all along since Brown v. Board of Education?  We have been making our peace with a system that promised improvement but gave very little, if any, for a longlong time now.  Making peace with the way things are could only be a perspective that comes from white privilege; that’s the only perspective that could see ACCOMMODATION as something new… or viable.
Popular meme circulated amongst college students

Popular meme circulated amongst college students

What gets clearer and clearer to me is that the majority of the white liberal bourgeoisie, the PMC, who makes up the professoriate has not had and will not have the tools to challenge or even understand the most corporatized university structure we have ever had.  I suppose if you take the arguments about the PMC to their logical conclusion though, the PMC was never interested in waging a challenge anyway.  However, the PMC is no longer invited to the table; holding on to the delusion of privilege seems a high price to pay.

I am thinking about these things because I was recently on another committee to evaluate the core.  As one assignment, we had to write about what we think students should be doing/learning in Core/Liberal Arts in the 21st century.  I liked the homework assignment and plan to move forward on my ideas in my next classes:

  1. Take on current information about new global markets and the connections to 21st century imperialism
  2. Fully immerse ourselves in a digital empire in ways that (re)center self-determination and community-control (see the National Conference for Media Reform)
  3. Speak to and locate racial oppression in a Post-Katrina nation-state
  4. Speak to and locate male dominance in new Benevolent Patriarchy (women are outnumbering male college students more and more, but this is not bringing us any closer to gender equality in higher education… can we talk about this?)
  5. Craft new rhetorical mobility and design competence in a multi-media and digital universe
  6. Develop new worker consciousness in current modes of capitalist production (are we going to keep ignoring our students’ increasing debt, students’  increasing inability to find a job or one that can pay off those debts, and the corporatization of professions that makes professional jobs today look more like factory assembly lines?)
  7. Reframe the standardized education students have received (this is the most tested and standardized group of students in the world and ever in history) and work toward counter-standardization as an educational and human right
  8. Internalize and apply real tools for cross-racial dialogue and alliance in a multiracial/multilingual world
  9. Make daily decisions about the planet with an eco-consciousness that will not destroy the environment we take for granted (it’s not an option to just ignore this)
Popular meme circulated amongst college students

Popular meme circulated amongst college students

Of course, right-leaning white liberals will accuse me of indoctrination but this will be what my curriculum for first year writing does and interrogates in the future anyway. I am not looking for student agreement here, just engagement, something I think I am pretty good at.  I suspect that, once again, the curriculum and strategies that I devise will be ignored while faculty sit on more commissions and committees, talking about and doing nothing.  I’ve seen how it goes down.

Obviously, I think these nine points are the role of a liberal arts curriculum, work that I think traditional disciplinary structures do not even come close to.  We keep talking about the theories of Freud, classical literature, Greek empires, blahblahblah that students need to know and the students keep asking us about their debt, about the world in which they live, about their livelihood and living wage, about the realities of digital design in their lives.  My definition of a liberal arts/core curriculum has nothing to do with the disciplines and their canonical texts/ideas at all.   A liberal arts/core curriculum is the framework for the intellectual culture of a college… it is a deep, meaningful, intellectual engagement with ideas and contemporary social issues, not a set of isolated skills to measure.

What I am left with now is not so much about student identities or ideas about what students need to do. I am thinking more about faculty identities and what faculty need to do.  As faculty, we need to ask ourselves: What should Core/Liberal Arts FACULTY be doing in the 21st century?   We will need to fight for exactly the kind of intellectual and political culture that I am describing here … an intellectual and political culture diametrically opposed to our current corporate models of higher education.  At best, we faculty of the PMC have been D students in achieving this.

Desperate Need for a Black Working Class Consciousness: The Fate of the Professional Managerial Class (PMC)

My grandmother (center, in pearls) with her 15 children and 60+ grandchildren & greatgrandchidren

My grandmother (center, in pearls) with her 15 children and 60+ grandchildren & greatgrandchidren

Anyone who knows me knows that I come from a large, working-class black family.  I am opening with that to say this: there IS such a thing as a black working class consciousness.  If you are western/ bourgeois/ academic and you need to call that statement “strategic essentialism” in order to make you feel better about your politics, then go right on ‘head, but, make no mistake about it: a black working class consciousness exists.  It is not some naturally-occurring thing; it is a socially constructed belief system, discourse, and political perspective shaped in conversation and proximity with other black people against the kind of super-exploitative, white-ruled working environments that black people must daily enter to feed and clothe their families, but also fully exit in order to maintain some humanity when they get back home.  I also open with this because it seems to me that a black working class consciousness is more important today than ever.

African American Women Welders during WWII

African American Women Welders (WWII)

I am picking up here from a previous post about the Professional Managerial Class, the PMC, as discussed by Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich. Their point is that the PMC’s work today looks a lot like the work that the working class always did— toiling in large structures as nameless cogs in automated systems.  I want to juxtapose this change in the work that the PMC does today alongside the fact that more black college graduate students are joining this PMC than ever before.   Instead of joining the PMC as the autonomous professionals that the decades before witnessed, first-generation black college graduates today will largely work in places where their everyday work life looks a lot like what their working class parents did (whether it be the service industry or a more factory-based industry).  This is the secret that we don’t share with our college students in a college system that is promising more and more students that a college degree will get them the keys to professional status— an economic system that no longer even operates that way.

I am not suggesting that we tell students to stop becoming lawyers, doctors, engineers, nurses, and the host of other professional careers they come to college for.  What I am saying is that students will need the black working class consciousness of their elders even more in this new system that tells them they are NOT exploited workers but treats them as EXACTLY THAT!   This realization is in direct contrast to the ways that we often teach college curricula, especially college writing.  We bamboozle our students with fantastic stories about learning and entering discourse communities, academic professions, and middle class/bourgeois life and work. These are lies.  This is the way faculty, as part of the PMC, as the Ehrenreichs describe it, “rationalize” a dying system and extend current modes of capitalism.

African American Postal Workers in the 20th Century

African American Postal Workers in the 20th Century

Black working class people have always known that they were exploited; that the work that they are allowed to do is not soul-sustaining; that black men do not benefit from patriarchy’s role-making of the male breadwinner; that black women do not get to trade in homemaking/non-job life for female work subordination and privilege; that white men will not come to black women’s rescue as benevolent or non-benevolent patriarchs at work or home (even the oral traditions tell you that!  See Flossie and the Fox!); that the labor one does will not equate to monetary gain; that the labor one does will not be written into the master script as the story of what has sustained and made the nation; that white co-workers, in the same financial straits as you, will more often than not cash in on the “wages of whiteness” to falsely identify with a white elite that hates them just as much; that prisons, projects, and criminally underfunded schools are just where they put you to keep you where you are or place you somewhere when the menial jobs you once did are no longer available.  These are counter-ideological systems that I don’t think we fully situate.  I have in mind here the ways that we talk about women like Ella Baker and Fannie Lou Hamer and their focus on poor black folk as knowledgeable, usually in direct defiance of the male leaders of the Civil Rights Movement; we tend to think these women were making egalitarian, moralistic, feminist choices that re-defined leadership, and, yes, they were, but they were also forwarding and centering a counter-ideological system that the bourgeoisie just can’t give you.  We who do the work of teaching and theorizing college writing are also stuck in this discourse of depoliticized, moralistic choices.  We want to debate what it means, ethically, to ask students to give up “home cultures” and “mother tongues” when they are in the academy.  We want to rest on paternalism and talk about “preparation” of subordinated groups to move ahead in the world (we do not rigorously interrogate that social world, we just embrace ourselves as having the answers to moving forward in it without an admission of our white power as the key.)  Sometimes, we will call it racist to ask students of color to give up the communities in which they have made sense of themselves.  But we seldom explicitly address our current complicity in one of the most egregious systems of racialized capitalism when we tell students they will enter new types of work worlds with their college degrees.  We are, in essence, formulating and formalizing the process where students withdraw from and deny the kind of counter-ideological systems that they already have and can use to take on, see, and critique the system we are in.  We would rather throw our students out into an exploitative world and pretend it will not devour them up in the same way it has always done with workers. In my mind, this is the worst kind of teaching we could provide.

Professional-Managerial Class (PMC): Becoming/Dis-Becoming Writing Teachers

classwarfare1At the 2013 Conference of College Composition and Communication (4Cs) in Las Vegas, I had the opportunity to be part of a workshop designed by Shannon Carter, Deborah Mutnick, and Steve Parks.  It was a fruitful workshop that centered real dialogue … while also producing more than just dialogue.  On one of the panels during the workshop, Kurt Spellmeyer asked us to contextualize and trouble our academic identities and positions as the Professional-Managerial Class (PMC).  Part of his discussion focused on Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich’s 1977 essays in Radical America called “The Professional Managerial Class” and then later,  “The New Left: A Case Study in Professional-Managerial Class Radicalism.”  Their current extension/revision of that work is called “Death of a Yuppie Dream: The Rise and Fall of the Professional-Managerial Class.”    Marc Bousquet, at a later point in the workshop, pushed us to see that no radical activity or revolution will come from the professoriate; otherwise, we would have seen that already.  He urged us, instead, to see ourselves as and act as a working class, which would mean a class consciousness where we work, radically so, in our own class interest.

“Death of a Yuppie Dream” frames analysis of current modes of capitalist production, mass consumption, and neoliberalism.   Here we are talking about our current social circumstance where once autonomous professionals, the Professional Managerial Class, the PMC (doctors, engineers, lawyers, professors, etc), who have been defined by specialized knowledge and standards, now experience corporate domination and exploitation rather than the private autonomous spaces that once defined their work.  While the PMC often acted as a kind of buffer between vulgar consumption, profits, and exploitation, the PMC has also been its own worst enemy— basically, a buncha sell-outs.  Today, the PMC has been downgraded (i.e., more adjunct hiring than tenure track professors), absorbed into corporations (i.e., HMOs, large corporate law firms vs. private practice), and has faced serious decline (i.e., the dearth of journalism jobs). Meanwhile, a new kind of complex, multi-tiered management system exists to control labor, high-tech machinery, and consumer culture where the new PMC, especially the high-paid managers (i.e., upper level administration/managers), look more like CEOs than the autonomous professionals of the past.  The Ehrenreichs convincingly show that the PMC became “the rationalizers of society” who conflicted with capitalists but who also positioned themselves away from and, often, in opposition to the working class that they fully exploited.  The Ehrenreichs also want to point out to the PMC that we are as dispensable to capitalism as the factory workers ousted from assembly lines for “third world” labor exploitation.   In other words: what the hell are we holding on to this system for?  The Ehrenreichs helped me to see and understand the kind of cultural logic that I see operating in college writing programs in this particular moment much better.

I am still often shocked at how readily faculty, those on the tenure-track who have made it into the PMC, will themselves advocate for the most corporate structures to mechanize writing and writing programs:

  1. one, standard syllabus that everyone can implement across a hierarchy of adjuncts, graduate students, junior faculty, and senior faculty;
  2. a set of standards/tests/assessments to ensure that students master exactly the kind of PMC logic that the Ehrenreichs criticize— discipline, appropriate academic curiosities, and “bureacratic modes of communication”;
  3. common assignments to be measured across one numerical system so that #2 can be automated more smoothly.

These mechanisms are not about education; they are the cultural logic of  mass production and consumption. The idea that conversation and dialogue with colleagues can produce consensus and community may as well be a foreign language and concept in this iteration of the PMC’s co-signing of automated/techno-regulated systems.  When it comes to under-represented college students of color in these systems, well there’s just no way for there to be a happy ending here.  Faculty of color really have no business being on board with these cultural logics when, at best, their focus on cultures and diversity will only be commodified, the new 21st century Booker T.’s, a fact that shouldn’t surprise given that bodies of color are always for sell across historically varied modes of capitalist production.

In true, sell-out fashion, the PMC becomes exactly the kind of “rationalizers” of capitalism that the Ehrenreichs critique with this mantra, ad infinitum: we are only being realistic. If the teaching of writing can be so “realistically” and simply automated, measurable, standardized, and replicated across multiple spaces, then why do we need full-time teachers… or teachers at all?  The ironic thing is that if the PMC does not turn against its own exploitation and begin to irrationalize capitalism and corporate, mass-automation, we only make ourselves more obsolete.  It seems true then that the lack of a class consciousness means you only undermine your own fool self.