Composition in the New Gilded Age

by Barry Alford

Alford_TSACultural narratives die hard.  Beneath the practices and theories operating in any composition classroom are the base assumptions that situate that classroom in a larger narrative of education and an even larger narrative of merit and mobility.  The space that composition occupies is not just contested by arguments about theory and practice: it is contested as part of a cultural narrative that defines the way we value and understand language.  Since the Truman Commission Report on Higher Education and Democracy in 1947 (it sounds almost quaint to hear the words education and democracy paired anymore), one of the narratives promulgated about Community Colleges was that they were an engine for increased access and mobility in the new economy following the war.  For at least the first two decades after the commission issued its report, that was true.  In the 1950’s, individual incomes went up more every year than they did in any decade after that.  Union membership was booming, and in the 1960’s when most of today’s Community Colleges opened, the future (at least until the carnage of ’68) looked so bright you had to wear shades.

As we move forward seventy years, that narrative is harder and harder to sustain.  The economy has stagnated, mobility in America is among the lowest of any industrialized society, and recent studies have shown that education doesn’t make that much difference in the social and economic future of our students.  The mobility narrative was always suspect.  One of the first critiques of the Community Colleges was Zwerling’s Second Best, and that critique was continued in Ira Shor’s Culture Wars.  The vocationalization of the Community Colleges that Brint and Karabel outlined in The Diverted Dream made it even clearer that Community Colleges were about work and not education.  Even though the mobility narrative was amped up in the Obama administration with the euphemism of “workforce training,” the real indicators of student success were trending in the opposite direction.

It makes a difference in how we understand and ‘teach’ language which of these narratives is more accurate.  If education in general, and Community Colleges in particular, are still the agents of social and economic mobility envisioned in the Truman Report, then Lynn Bloom’s observation that composition was like “a pool filter” might have some merit.  That is, it makes sense to see language as an individual resource in a world where individual resources could shape the trajectory of a student’s future.  But if school is, as Evan Watkins said in his book Work Time, “still pretty much a place where people go to learn their place,” then seeing language as a grooming activity for social mobility is severely flawed.  Most of the people I know who are dedicated composition teachers would say that the politics don’t matter, that composition shouldn’t be political, an argument often raised against critical pedagogy.  Language is always political.  Are we teaching language to folks Gramsci called “the 100 at Eaton” so they can make their way into the managerial class, or are we teaching language to students who are more like the Chartists in Ranciere’s Nights of Labor, who need language to create a new social and political reality?

The Chartists disbanded before many of the political reforms they championed came to fruition, but Ranciere’s focus is more on the central role language and literacy played in the movement.  In an era where members of the working class were often denied access to education and literacy, the Chartists fought for the right to read and learn, often creating their own night schools.  In many ways, this struggle for literacy mirrors the students that Freire wrote about in his early practice, students for whom the simple act of naming the world was a political act.  Even though Freire was no stranger to composition studies, the political urgency of literacy was a hard sell in America, which used to pride itself on access to education.  I think things have changed.  Students in Community Colleges are faced with a crisis of political literacy.  The existing discourse of democratic politics is broken and will not help them define a role for themselves in the evolving kleptocracy that America has become.  They need to form a new language for themselves that they can use to reclaim a place in a reshaping of a democratic society.

Bakhtin, who wanted to do for language what Einstein and Bohr had done for physics, said that language always was always caught in a dynamic flow of centrifugal and centripetal forces.  The centripetal forces worked to make the language tighter and more uniform, and without them we risk becoming incoherent.  But language also always has a centrifugal force that is pulling it toward new expressions and concepts.  At different moments and different contexts, one of these forces may be more important than the other.  I think we have to take a moment and consider which of these forces are more important to students in the 2-year colleges.  If the idea that drove Eliot to reform the curriculum at Harvard after the Civil War to prepare not just the elite but a whole new economic class of managers and professionals for a new economy is outdated, then so are the underlying assumptions about language that have driven the enterprise of composition.  Those assumptions may still function in some institutions, but they are more than a little problematic for open admissions students.  The intellectual crisis facing these students, who have never transferred to and graduated from 4-year schools in significant numbers, is not how to fit through the “pool filter,” but how to create a community of people to challenge an imploding democracy.  The centrifugal force of language is more important to their struggle than learning to be compliant.

This is especially true now that the composition classroom in the Community Colleges is so often staffed by severely underpaid adjuncts.  Often when students enter one of these colleges, their best bet of meeting their first part-time employee is when they meet their Comp instructor.  It wasn’t always this way.  When I started teaching in 2-year colleges more than forty years ago, I started as an adjunct.  I taught prisoners and guards at the prison in Chillicothe, Ohio.  Almost everyone I knew had a similar story about breaking in as an adjunct, but we expected and usually got full-time employment.  The first union contract I bargained had a clause that required the college to hire a full-time faculty member if a full load existed for three consecutive semesters.  The fate of people entering the profession has followed the same economic trajectory as the students.  Bernard Stiegler in States of Shock argues that the idea that knowledge can be created in elite enclaves and then simply transplanted into other people’s lives is not only false but destructive.  Knowledge, according to Stiegler, has to be created in the context in which it is used and experienced.  What and how students and faculty in the 2-year colleges write and the language they use to write it should be an intensely local negotiation.

I don’t think the issue here is how to create a new textbook for Community Colleges (marketed by Pearson, no doubt) that standardizes a new approach.  The idea is to use the tools we have learned and practiced to find new ways to give students who usually go to comp class to be judged on their language skills a way to find their own voice instead, and not in the conventional way we use that term.  They need a collective voice, a voice they develop and share with their adjunct instructors to question the corporate inclinations of the Community College.  They have a right to a real education, a real job, and a living wage.  Looking back on all the years I taught, one of the stranger things to ruminate over is all the ‘papers’ I read.  In Textual Carnivals, Susan Miller raises the same issue.  Instead of worrying about papers written by individual students for individual grades – the height of centripetal force – these students need a collective language.  It won’t be the Marxist influenced language of what was once working -class politics.  The cultural and economic conditions that made that a relevant intervention in the last century simply don’t exist anymore and students are going to have to find a new way to articulate their experience.

Adjuncts are often even worse off economically than their students, but they have cultural capital their students do not have.  Composition in the Community Colleges needs to focus that capital on the conditions that oppress both the students and the faculty.  Writing needs to be public, collaborative and political.  It can’t simply imitate the politics of the past, it has to forge a new reality.  The students should write their local politicians.  They should write platforms and policy and encourage their classmates to run for office.  They should write letters to the Board and demand reforms at the college.  They can research and write about their own histories and the history of their area.  In order to do any of this well or effectively, they will learn how to research and revise and edit, only this time it will be for their purposes.  I know this sounds heretical, but these are desperate times.

I have often said to people that the most dedicated and resourceful people I ever met were comp instructors.  They will stay up all night fretting over making just the right feedback to a student who is more likely than not to ignore it.  Sadly, I think all that diligence and creativity has been in service to a narrative that has collapsed.  We don’t live where we thought we lived all these years.  The political and economic storm we are living through will not leave our classrooms, our students, or our practices untouched.  It’s time to tell a new story.  MLA optional.

Barry Alford grew up in a working-class community outside of Flint, Michigan.  He taught in community colleges for over forty years.


Works Cited

Bakhtin, M.M.  The Dialogic Imagination:  Four Essays.  Ed by Michael Holquist, Translated by Holquist and Carol Emerson.  Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1983.

Bloom, Lynn Z. “Freshman Composition as a Middle-Class Enterprise.”  College English 58.6 (1996): pp.  654-675.

Brint S. & Karabel J.  The Diverted Dream: Community Colleges and the Promise of Educational Opportunities in America, 1900-1985.  New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Gramsci, Antonio.  Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Ed and Translated by Quinton Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1973.

Ranciere, Jaques.  The Nights of Labor: The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth-Century France.  Translated by John Drury.  Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1991.

Shor, Ira.  Culture Wars: School and Society in the Conservative Restoration 1969-1984.  Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Stiegler, Bernard.  States of Shock: Stupidity and Knowledge in the 21st Century.  Translated by Daniel Ross.  Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2015.

Watkins, Evan.  Work Time: English Departments and the Circulation of Cultural Value. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1986.

Zwerling, L. Steven. Second Best: The Crisis of the Community College.  New York, NY: McGraw-Hill,1976.

Author: darinljensen

I am a writer and a teacher who is interested in issues of class and social justice.

One thought on “Composition in the New Gilded Age”

  1. Barry Alford is right. Education has never been “the great equalizer” envisioned by the visionary Horace Mann 175 years ago. Community colleges have never been “democracy’s open door” or “the great career palace” promoted by cc advocates. Two-year colleges have produced two dropouts for every graduate. Writing teachers and adjuncts in these and other working-class campuses have been heroic in their underpaid hard work. After 70 years of mass higher education, economic inequality is at record levels. Forty years of productivity gains have been matched by forty years of stagnant wages. Barry Alford points to the right need–composition as an site of activist orientation where critical literacy invites students to imagine and build the civic power they need to claim their rights.

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