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  • Ethical Representation of Working-Class Lives:Multiple Genres, Voices, and Identities
  • Nancy Mack (bio)

Vivyan Adair and Sandra Dahlberg (2001) advocate in the first issue of Pedagogy that American literature teachers need to help students interrogate representations of social class, especially working and poverty classes, as a means to complicate students' reading, writing, and thinking about their own subjectivities. To a similar end, Amy Robillard (2003) calls for composition teachers to encourage students to complicate their narrative writing by considering how time is a class-based concept that affects the selection and interpretation of past experiences. For working-class students in particular I suggest that issues of subjectivity present an immediate conflict in all academic writing assignments as these students struggle to compose a legitimate identity within the university.1

Working-class students frequently have problems imagining themselves as scholars. A rhetorical indication of this conflict is the self-effacing commonplaces that working-class students feel obliged to incorporate into their writing to the effect that theirs is only an opinion or just their personal belief about a topic. Nick Tingle (2004) draws from both composition and psychology scholars to explain how readers associate these self-effacing statements with assumptions that the writer is displaying a weak ego. Tingle relates his vexation with teaching a type of academic identity that demands that working-class students uncritically mimic the linguistic mannerisms [End Page 53] and values of a more elite social class, thereby positioning themselves for self-betrayal. Such rhetorical devices belie the larger issues of legitimacy and entitlement for working-class students. It is my contention that working-class students need writing assignments in which they can occupy an authoritative position in relation to their topic. If they are to survive at the university, working-class students must construct a position that is not discounted as underprepared or limited to an acceptable imitation of the elite original but a respected, working-class-academic identity.

I have long been dissatisfied with traditional research paper assignments that render working-class students powerless by discounting their experiences, histories, and ways of making knowledge. Like most of my university colleagues, I do not look forward to pointless papers about hackneyed topics selected for their available sources, simplified positions, and prepackaged worldviews. I want more interesting writing from my students that reflects their remarkable lives. Through the development of a multigenre folklore writing assignment, I have found that working-class students can successfully compose texts that have complex representations of their families, peer groups, and communities. This assignment has the potential to provide teachers with a pedagogy for recovering the power that the academic experience too often takes away from working-class students. It is designed to respond to the kinds of identity conflicts working-class students experience.

Working-Class Identity Conflicts

Although a college degree does increase the income of individuals, the educational experience should not be misrepresented as a free ride to upward mobility. Hidden beneath the seductive belief that education is the great equalizer is the assumption that being from the working class is a deficit or a liability. Historically, even working-class institutions have been modeled after universities that valorize competitive, elite culture (Alberti 2001: 568). The academy constructs working-class subjectivity as an oppositional choice between the right and wrong types of culture or worse as an empty binary between culture and no culture at all. As a former working-class student from the same community in which I now teach, my high school years were filled with many well-meaning teachers who transported us to philharmonic orchestra performances, quizzed us on famous works of art, and required us to memorize numerous passages from Shakespeare in an effort to infuse culture into our otherwise supposedly cultureless existence. The psychologist Barbara Jensen (2004: 179) claims that cultural conflicts created by the [End Page 54] educational experience cause a cognitive dissonance that "is so great, that [working-class students] are more likely to either reject the new culture (one reason for the high dropout rate among such students) or try to eject the former culture from their sense of self." Jensen identifies these class conflicts as a highly personal array of psychological...


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