Thursday, March 21, 2013

Working-Class as Object of Study

At the Conference on College Composition and Communication (a.k.a. 4Cs), meeting in Las Vegas this year, there is a special interest group (SIG) dedicated to "Working-Class Culture and Pedagogy." The invitation to join is extended to instructors who are… "from a working-class background yourself, teach working-class students, or plain have an interest in class."

I find this oddly insulting, while I am an admitted defender of my "working-class roots." I know from experience that the questions asked at such gatherings are condescending, along the "What's the matter with Kansas?" line of thought. As some point, the professoriate that has risen beyond the working-class starts to view their former community as "the other" — a group with serious flaws.

The SIG announcement explains, "We will be talking about projects, courses, and assignments about working-class culture."

Too often we drift towards, "Those poor, misinformed, misguided, manipulated working-class people! If only we could help them see the light." And, since many of us first-generation professors come from the middle and lower-middle classes, we believe we are well positioned to "guide" our lost community.

To cling to those middle-class values, to sometimes consider them superior to what I observe in the rarefied world of academia, has been noted as a flaw — a failure to demonstrate the approved version of "critical thinking" that is strangely homogenous among the elites.

I realize that my colleagues don't view "middle-class studies" as an insult. They view it as they might all the various "studies" within universities. The desire is to preserve and protect, but consider how this also objectifies the working-class. It infantilizes the working-class.

What is "working-class" to the academics of this SIG? Is working-class defined by income? By type of work? By some other socioeconomic variables? Will this be a celebration or mockery of the blue-collar men and women who keep this country (and the world) functioning?

Yesterday, my wife and I moved a half-pallet of bricks. We do whatever physical work we can ourselves. Does that make us "working-class" or simply hobbyists? Most farmers we know are in the "rich" (top quintile) of the United States, but they are working-class in the minds of academics. What are the divisions and why?

Americans at the top of the wealth pyramid have a habit of assuming the symbols of the working class. Jeans, crafted as durable clothing for miners and cowboys, became designer fashion. Jazz, the music of working-class African-Americans, is now the music of university and public radio stations. Shakespeare's plays and Mozart's music, both meant for the masses, are performed for the black-tie set. Even hobbies that link the rich and poor are different when you pursue them by choice — not financial necessity.

When you study any group, you risk further removing yourself from that group. You have to admit that studying a group to which you did (or do) belong changes your view of the group and yourself. What you study and perceive as important reflect biases, too. What if you dismiss aspects of a culture that are actually the very core of the community? What if you fail to understand a culture because your perspective is different? Every anthropologist knows that you can only report observations from a biased, limited vantage point.

Much more separates us than class. That fact exposes the limits of a class-centric perspective.
Are You Living in an Elitist Bubble? Take the Quiz 
by DANIEL HONAN MARCH 8, 2013, 12:00 AM
My results:
On a scale from 0 to 20 points, where 20 signifies full engagement with mainstream American culture and 0 signifies deep cultural isolation within the new upper class bubble, you scored between 9 and 12. 
In other words, even if you're part of the new upper class, you've had a lot of exposure to the rest of America.

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