Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Passing Class

I have been somewhat saddened to see the turn taken by at least one small part of the discussion started by Dr. Crazy at Reassigned Time, whose thoughtful post on why she teaches literature elicited what I took at first to be a more lighthearted critique from Joseph Kugelmass – perhaps I mistook the tone: it had been a long day, and I was overtired from writing. Unfortunately, this has turned into a more heated conflict – one I probably ought to stay out of, since I am buried in work right now. In fairness to Dr. Crazy, though, and since when I wrote my previous post, I wouldn’t have realised the need to be clearer where I stand in relation to the substantive issues in what has now become a more serious dispute, I thought I should at least go on record. Readers may be more interested in following up directly with the posts at Reassigned Time (here and here) and the Kugelmass Episodes (here and here). There is also a very good discussion percolating away over at Acephalous.

Some of the heat in this dispute has revolved around a matter of cross-blog etiquette – around the question of whether Dr. Crazy’s post, written in a personal voice developed to communicate with an established community of readers, and intended to voice a personal perspective and individual motivations, was an appropriate target for a more abstract and philosophical form of engagement. More substantively, the debate has revolved around issues of social class and the role of higher education in enabling students to achieve higher socioeconomic status – and, most controversially, teaching students to “pass” in class contexts other than the ones in which they grew up. Dr. Crazy’s original post suggested that one – one among many, but still one – of her goals in teaching literature was the following:

To give students a vocabulary for discussing things that are complex, which is ultimately about socializing them to talk, think, and feel in ways that allow them to be upwardly mobile. Most of my students do not come from families that discuss books over dinner – or art, or advances in science, etc. If they don’t learn how to have conversations about these things, they face a disadvantage when they leave college and enter the broader world. (I should say, I think this may be one of the most compelling arguments for the humanities in the context of higher education at my kind of institution, as it doesn’t matter what degree one has if one can’t hobnob with people from higher class backgrounds when one is done.)

In his original post, the discussion that followed in the comments, and now a new post, Joseph has been objecting with increasing volume to this point. He finds in this comment a patronisation that, to be honest, I can’t hear myself – perhaps my own class background is a bit too similar to those of the students Dr. Crazy discusses – and I have, of course, written previously about my reaction to colleagues who occasionally believe that there is something elitist in trying to help students learn to open the doors that can sometimes be opened only through certain “academic” ways of knowing.

Joe raises more serious concerns about the issue of helping students learn to “pass”. Joe worries that this concept: already expresses a devaluation of working class culture; could easily lead students to adopt middle class ideals – including, perhaps, the ideology that social outcomes derive solely from personal effort – in an uncritical way; is unrealistic, in the sense that academic contexts are unlikely to provide an adequate ability to advance socially, and even more unlikely to equip students with a sufficiently robust “habitus” to blend seamlessly into middle class culture; and could constitute a form of policing or gatekeeping:

Etiquette has two faces: it is a form of courtesy, and also a form of policing. Passing is both empowerment and entrapment. If passing was of vital importance to a particular student population, so much so that it became a primary lens for their whole educational experience, I could imagine building a wonderful literature course around it. It would, like any course, perform its share of socialization, and it would comprehend the desire to pass as other, but it would not settle the matter comfortably. That cannot happen until the injustice itself has passed.

It’s difficult for me to know what to say to all this, perhaps because my own background gets in the way. I’m unclear what the “output” would be from Joe’s approach – what pedagogical principles are being advocated. Injustice is not going to pass during the term. Most of us are engaged in the problem of how to teach now, with the students who exist before us, with the backgrounds they have, in a world that has existing power relations that students must navigate, unjust or not. These are conditions not of our choosing – or theirs. Hic Rhodus, hic salta. This is where we must make our leap.

Something about the whole exchange reminded me of an interview Marx gave late in life. He listed the goals of the International Society – universal male suffrage, health and safety regulations, freedom of assembly, legislation by the people, etc. The reporter, obviously expecting a more radical programme, said:

“But,” I said, “socialists generally look upon the transformation of the means of labor into the common property of society as the grand climax of the movement.”

Marx replied:

“Yes; we say that this will be the outcome of the movement, but it will be a question of time, of education, and the institution of higher social status.”

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2 responses to “Passing Class

  1. Joseph Kugelmass January 30, 2008 at 5:32 am


    I am also deeply saddened by the way this discussion has progressed, including in the comments and responses at Reassigned Time.

    As a result, I suspect my ability to continue responding on the matter will be limited, but I can perhaps address the point about the pace of change.

    In my post from last night, I wanted to foreground the point that change does not happen instantaneously, and so we have to teach an extremely complicated situation. That’s why I write at the end that there is presently no way to “settle the matter comfortably.”

    In other words, it’s not a question of pretending as though the social reality is other than it is. Rather, it’s a question of recognizing that utopian accounts of class mobility do not work any better than utopian visions of radical action. Trying to inform students about both responses to hardship strikes me as a desirable ad hoc solution.

  2. N Pepperell January 31, 2008 at 2:43 pm

    Hey Joe – Apologies for the long delay in responding. I was mired in a chapter draft, and then needed to catch up on some sleep. I didn’t “hear” in the original post a sort of advocacy of “passing” or a commitment that students must choose some particular path to social mobility. I know that personally I work with students all the time, though, who struggle with the immense social differences between their backgrounds, and the environments they are currently trying to navigate – and run into brick walls because the ability to mobilise certain kinds of knowledge and certain modes of behaviour is naturalised, such that inability to mobilise such things can be crippling. These knowledges and aptitudes can be demystified at least to the point that they become less significant barriers.

    There is a difference between this form of explicit demystification and wielding normative notions of “middle classness” against which students’ behaviours are then assessed (the latter, in fact, is often what happens in practice when students aren’t working with someone aware enough of the issue to know that “passing” can be an active problem…).

    Of course there is no comfortable solution – it’s just that nothing I saw in the original post suggested otherwise to me.

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