Sunday, April 27, 2008

Class Changing the Classroom

Jessica Fentress

“The BA degree determines whether individuals will perform mental or physical labor, and it also determines the amount of autonomy they will have over their work” (Soliday 732). However, structures within the composition classroom and the world of higher education as a whole often alienate working class students who need the Bachelor’s degree in order to cross socioeconomic lines into the middle class. Socioeconomic class in the university can, therefore, function as something more than a “distribution of resources” (Lindquist). Socioeconomic class is part of a larger power struggle that leaves educators in a position of having to force change in order to give their working-class students a fair chance at entering the university and the wider world of the middle class.

Earlier research focused primarily on linguistic concerns to explain why working class students faced problems in the college writing classroom. A close analysis of studies conducted prior to 1983 found that many of the studies had inconclusively proven linguistic differences in the writing samples of members of working and middle class students. Middle-class boys ages 12-14 were found to write more and use more subordinate clauses than their working-class peers. The middle class was given credit for using more adjectives, more elaboration, more modification, writing longer essays with longer, more complicated sentences, and being more adept at basic utilitarian genres such as thank you letters. The working class, in contrast, was given credit for having more capability in narrative and description that relied on more concrete details to communicate (Poole).

Still other studies reviewed found no differences at all and suggested that working class students had, in effect, been schooled out of that which marked their written communication as working class. While Poole concludes that there is no evidence that there are linguistic differences between the classes, she does point to a much larger truth about the studies; nearly all of them judged writing by middle class standards, rules, and definitions, which leave educators with only two options if they want to acknowledge class differences and refuse to disdain basic aspects of their student’s history: they can romanticize the value of being working class and refuse to impose academic discourse upon their students’ native way of making meaning, but this would not grant working class students basic access to the power structures of a middle-class society, or they can strip working class students of their identities and basic views of the world and allow them access to the university (Poole). Either of these are unacceptable solutions.

More recent research focuses on innate ways of thinking and acting in social settings that may make classrooms alienating places for working class students. The research indicates that working class students are often criticized for using cliché phrases (Seitz). It also indicates that working class students may have difficulty questioning authority or exhibiting their own intelligence in class, leading professors to think that they are not engaged, active participants in the class (Tingle).

Current research also seeks to explain the “shortcomings” of the working class. For instance, Seitz is quick to explain the fact that cliché phrases may be part of a larger coping system that helps working class students to hold onto their old world while trying to enter the middle class, and Tingle is quick to point to research that studied the parenting practices of working class and middle class parents and found that working class caregivers discouraged exhibitions of intelligence or the criticism of sources of power.

While identity and socialization issues are important, there are also more pragmatic difficulties faced by working class students that have nothing to do with language. Institutions of higher learning are expensive, and as the funding for public higher education is cut, so too, is the number of working class students who can afford to enter and stay in the university. Working class students are often forced to work more hours outside of class in order to pay for their education, severely limiting the time they can spend on class work. They, therefore, often find themselves under too much exhaustion and financial strain to finish their degree in four years, or, indeed, at all (Soliday).

Given these differences more recent research seeks to explore the best approach to teaching composition to working-class students. It is quick to conclude that a formalist axiology does not work. Formalist pedagogies can drastically endanger a working-class student’s abilities and liberties within the English classroom. Formalist axiology teaches the rules of middle-class discourse with very little regard to the patterns and talents that working-class students bring with them to the classroom (Shor). While Shor advocates the critical /cultural studies approach to teaching composition as a way of giving students power within the classroom, other researchers have been quick to point out the many problems with critical/cultural studies.

The problem with critical/cultural studies ultimately arises from the fact that critical/cultural studies professors, while trying to liberate their students from the dominant middle class discourse, ultimately force adherence to an anti-dominant ideology with its own foundationalist standards of how students should go about being freed in the first place (Bizzell; Lindquist; and Seitz). The critical/cultural studies classroom often replaces the authoritative, fundamentalist standard of academic discourse with a method of analysis (Bizell) that is often foreign to working class students. The new standard logic, which relies heavily on objective, deductive reasoning alienates working class students who may have been socialized to favor inductive reasoning based on personal experience and emotion (Lindquist; Seitz).

Researchers, however, offer different solutions to the problem of a foundationalist standard of “appropriate” logic. Lindquist advocates a pedagogy in which the teachers’ role is not one of critiquing students as “honest skeptics,” but one of “strategic performance” in which teachers work “to tactically position themselves as conduits for students’ affective responses to the paradoxes of nostalgia and ambition in working-class experiences.” This sounds like the “British pedagogical approach” that allows students, not merely of the working class, to do research in their native discourses without favoring or enforcing academic discourse (Bizzell). While this may be good for the emotional well-being of working-class students, Bizzell finds fault with it, claiming that working class students often learn only one thing from such a course: “that they don’t want to have anything to do with academic discourse. They leave school. Thus, indeed, they escape the threat of assimilation. But also[…] they escape any possibility of changing their disenfranchised social status” (Bizzell 49). Bizzell, therefore, advocates a two-pronged approach to teaching composition to diverse student populations at large.

First, she advocates a rhetorical approach to teaching composition that allows student to “demystify” academic discourse by immersing them in the academic community to the point of “socialization.” Second, she advocates recognizing the fact that academic discourse is not a rigid and unchanging monolith. Rather, it contains many revolutionary strands that can and do change what is acceptable in the university. It is therefore the responsibility of educators to advocate for change that will allow for a more inclusive academy and world at large (Bizzell).

Political change is called for in other arenas. Some research recognizes the ways in which the basic structures of the college composition system can inhibit working class students’ abilities to succeed in the university and the middle class world at large. Shor and Soliday, both writing from the City University of New York, insist that language policies at the university level are for the express purpose of limiting working class and minority students’ access to the university. They claim that policies which use standardized tests before students enter the university to place specific students in remedial courses based on their familiarity with white, middle class discourse are intent upon “cooling out” students and lessening their career aspirations or ability to attain a Bachelor’s Degree. Soliday points out that
Remediation and assessment may foster students’ progress at some institutions, but Barbara Gleason and I have evidence that both acted as internal barriers by slowing students’ progress toward a BA at CCNY. While tuition was soaring and the poverty level of minorities was increasing in New York City, our students could neither use their financial aid to pay for remedial courses nor enroll in required core curriculum courses while simultaneously completing remedial requirements. We felt that the remedial program was not receiving adequate funding or intellectual attention from the institution commensurate to its functions, and we had collected evidence that the CUNY WAT [a standardized test used for placement] did not accurately predict who would succeed in a college writing course. (Soliday 738)
Shor explains this problem in more shocking terms by stating that his students who succeeded in spite of the fact that they should have been in remedial courses were the possessors of “illegal literacy” that caused them to have to jump through hoops such as taking a freshman composition class, passing it, and then having to go back and take the remedial course in order to get credit for it. This frustrates him and his students, and leaves Shor claiming that these are the policies that uphold the “regime” of middle class “white supremacy.” Furthermore, Shor claims that the problem will get worse as national standardized tests replace individual institutions’ English competency tests as ways of tracking students and assigning them to remedial instruction.

Both Shor and Soliday advocate, as does Bizzell, political action by professors to change both the way that writing instruction is taught and the system in which it is taught. However, none of these studies measure the effectiveness of their respective approaches in creating change and opening the university up to students of the working class. All of this research is hypothetical, based on what researchers think practitioners ought to be doing, not the actual effect of changing classrooms and political institutions on retention and education of working class students, which seems to be all of the researchers’ ultimate goals. Perhaps this is the result of the fact that change like this will have to happen very slowly, but finding an effective way to prevent composition from serving as a roadblock to student success is a critical component to educating working class students who need access to wider power structures in order to help themselves and help change the system.

For works cited, see annotated bib.

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