Social Class Reproduction

Four Rules for Teaching Writing:
Image result for image: joy of writing
Always give writing assignments that

1. you will enjoy reading;
2. students will enjoy writing;
3. students will enjoy reading what others in the class have written
4. you will enjoy writing.

If any one of these conditions were not true, then it probably wasn't a very good assignment.

Advice I give to my students: When your words surprise you, you know you are writing.

Sunday, October 11, 2015


Rather than respond to a response, I'm entering a post because I can see that I am going to go on at length:

Kurt asked:

Irv, I wonder: do you think your system is viable (in terms of the grade distribution and/or the timing of when grades attach attaching grades) for untenured faculty (whether they be pre-tenure TT or adjunct)? Despite the extent to which it is theoretically, pedagogically, and operationally sound, might it not offer too much exposure--too much fuel, maybe--for contingent faculty to use? The "academic freedom" position is, for many who teach writing, an ideal rather than a practice. Thoughts?

Thoughts in response to Kurt (and thanks for your  note, Kurt):

We can't shy away from the social stratification system and unequal distribution of pay, prestige, and privileges (reproducing the more general cultural system) at play in English departments. Sometimes, there are phatic gestures of equality that no one believes. I wrote in "Acting Justly" about the social stratification system in English departments--tracking back to the Wyoming Conference Resolution and its watered-down descendants (also see "Whispers from the Margin"). English departments are simply usually unconsciously articulating the larger function of the university--one of Althusser's ideological state apparatuses (with some gestures of pushing against orthodoxy).

Social reproduction theory is only the frame for my response. As actors, we have some degree of consciousness but it's easy to overstate our case. Grades--and the way they are institutionally naturalized--are only one more strategy in the social reproduction game.

So .  . . yes, the less privileged take more chances when they challenge orthodoxy. Tenured full professors can challenge grading systems relatively unscathed, although people might avoid them in receptions. Part-time teachers will not be rehired. NonTT teachers might be dismissed. Assistant professors might not get promotion and tenure, and associate professors might associate forever.

This scheme might be mitigated and even countermanded by a writing program administrator or (less likely) a chair or (more less likely) by a dean who might commit themselves to teaching rather than social reproduction (I know--this is not a hierarchical opposition--more of a dialectic: I know a lot of very good writing teachers who still grade essays and literature teachers who grade tests).

However, what does it say about our system if we recognize that our pedagogy contradicts our goals but we hang on to it because the structure within which we teach (which usually includes in its Essential Learning Outcomes something like self-sponsored/life-long learning) threatens dismissal if we refuse to engage in counterproductive teaching habits--like grading?

Let me give two more examples of mis-education (Dewey)--ones with which most people in our field would agree but still dominate education: the focus on testing, "measurable" outcomes (I cringe whenever I hear this phrase)--and its link to the testing industry; and formula writing. Even though most of us in the field have endlessly dissed the five-paragraph essay and its cousins, it and other models of formula writing dominate secondary (and in some places, postsecondary) education.

Let's imagine that we want our students to love writing, to love learning (both of which would lead to self-sponsored writing and learning); then we should always ask at the end of our course or curriculum, do they go out of our courses and programs with a more positive attitude toward writing and learning than when we first met them? And by "they," I mean at least 90% of our
students. If the answer is no, then we need to think (critically).


  1. I just responded to the last post (the comment about faculty being pressured to deflate grades) but want to reply here, too.

    One analogy I have used in trying to explain my view of grading is to say I teach PE, not CPR.

    In CPR, one wants everyone to learn the same set of steps, and to be able to execute them correctly. What the learners know and can do when they arrive is far less important than what they know and can do when they leave; people arrive at the Red Cross class with highly differing abilities and backgrounds, but (ideally) leave with the same life-saving abilities.

    In PE, one wants learners to acquire habits of action, and to feel the value of those habits, and to internalize those habits and carry them into life beyond the class. The goal is not for all learners to leave with the same set of abilities, but for each to grow stronger, more flexible, more self-aware than she was at the start of the class. What this means will be different for each learner, since each comes in with different experiences and abilities.

    In CPR, if a student can pass the test, the student doesn't need the class.

    In PE, if a student can do 100 push-ups and run a six minute mile, the teacher does not say, "This student is fit, and can stop improving." They say, "Where can this student go from here, and how can I help her get there?"

    The connections to grading are, I assume, obvious to readers here.

    1. Sarah: thanks so much for that--that's a perfect way to put it. I know I'll be quoting you on this. I'll also share it with my students (would love to share it with all faculty here, many of whom think of writing as a lockstep process--like in that silly article I responded to a few posts ago.