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Working Class Academic: Addressing Language, Power, and Privilege in the Classroom
Wendy Olson, Klamath Community College

In "Bi, Butch, and Bar Dyke: Pedagogical Performances of Class, Gender, and Sexuality," Michelle Gibson, Martha Marinara, and Deborah Meem suggest that the identities we perform within our institutions and within our classrooms are political acts. More specifically, they state that "we must think seriously about the identities we bring with us into the classrooms, remain conscious of the way those identities interact with the identities our students bring, and insert ourselves fully into the shifting relationships between ourselves and our students" (92). What they touch on, then, is that the work of teaching is political-whether we recognize it as such or not. Further, they suggest that the task of the composition instructor—within the institution, within the classroom--is to use the politics of her/his own identities to facilitate change.


My father is a truck driver and my mother has worked at an assortment of retail jobs for as long as I can remember. My identity as an academic is alien to them (alien to me). While my parents are very proud of me, they are unfamiliar with the world of academia and, quite frankly, could care less about it. A couple of years ago, during a long discussion with my father over the phone, I described my detailed plans for obtaining a full-time community college teaching position. "Now what grade do you teach, again?" he asked me at the end of the conversation.

I put myself through school while waiting tables and bartending; it took me eight years to get my BA. I applied to graduate school on the west coast—because I wanted to teach college, but also because I wanted to shed my identity as a working class woman, as an Appalachian daughter. My plan didn’t work, though. As it turns out, I had applied to a program where Donna Qualley was the director of Comp. Needless to say, Donna complicated thinking. I came to grad school just wanting to teach, but I gravitated towards composition and literacy studies.

I moved towards comp theory because I was teaching composition but also, and more importantly, because the theory I was learning made sense to me. It gave me a lens for examining my own conflicting emotions: my need to flee from my home community; my contempt and critique of middle-class life (which was occurring at the same time I was ascending into it through education); and my fear that I didn’t belong in graduate school. In other words, the theory made the politics of education visible to me. And specifically, it influenced how I perceived the work of teaching composition. Like Gibson, Marinara, and Meem, I recognized that the identity or identities I chose to perform in the classroom had the ability to create and recreate the classroom, the community I composed with my students.

I read Friere, Brice-Heath, Gee, and Stuckey. I made my students read them too (bits and pieces—my favorite quotes). I assigned my university students literacy narratives. I complicated their thinking. I asked them to examine their assumptions about language, power, and privilege. While doing so, I self-identified as a working class woman, as an Appalachian, as a hillbilly. I played with the words in the classroom: briefly, tentatively, nervously. I negotiated my identities.

This continuing work in the classroom, though, is complicated by the identities of my students. Currently, I teach basic writing at a community college located in a rural, working class community. Here, the majority of my students are returning adults and the majority of them are unfamiliar with the conventions of academic discourse, while at the same time bringing a wealth of experience into the classroom. In many ways, they are unlike my former university students.

In this college, I tend to self-identify with my students because we come from similar places. My students are like me, however they are not like me. I can identify with their working class backgrounds, but my identity as their instructor locates me in a space of privilege—a space I am sometimes uncomfortable with; a space, though, that they will not let me de-authorize. Because of these differences, I am re-evaluating my identity in the classroom, shifting the relationships between me and my students. In this setting, the politics of education are even more evident to me, to my students.

I use my identity as instructor—as academic—to give voice to the non-academic identities in the classroom, my own included. My location of occupying multiple identities in the classroom affords me this luxury, this privilege. In doing so, my students and I still address the issues of language, power, and privilege in the classroom—but we approach it from another perspective.

Through out the quarter, we discuss issues of literacy, language, and community. We approach writing and language rhetorically, examining the rules of grammar and usage, for example, through the lens of writer, reader, and purpose. Thus, we discuss how the conventions and expectations of academic English (the language of power) are similar and different from the conventions and expectations of the multiple home languages represented in the classroom. In approaching this work, I am still using my own identity as an example. I am careful, though, to also include my academic identity. We create identity maps that allow us to illustrate and identify our multiple selves, our multiple languages, and the varying discourse communities we belong to.

At the end of the quarter, this work culminates in the writing of a literacy narrative. In doing this work, students critically examine the power of language, while at the same time accessing the language of academia by recognizing it as learned rather than natural (see "Translating Self and Difference through Literacy Narratives," Mary Soliday College English 56. 5 (1994) ). Thus, they learn and practice the conventions of academic discourse but also participate in critical literacy.

For my students, this work is sometimes frustrating: they want absolute rules—how many sentences in a paragraph, Wendy?—and I give them context: well, how many do you need? However, by addressing the politics of writing in the classroom as well as teaching writing skills, I feel my students leave the classroom not only more experienced in writing, but more experienced in navigating rhetorical communities, namely academia.

And specifically, this kind of work in the writing classroom affords a space where the reciprocal relationship between academic discourse and home discourse can transform and shape the other, empowering often silenced language users: our basic writing students.

Work Cited

Gibson, Michelle, Martha Marinara, and Deborah Meem. "Bi, Butch, and Bar Dyke: Pedagogical Performances of Class, Gender, and Sexuality." CCC 52.1 (2000) : 69 – 95.

To Winans

Funded through the U.S. Dept. of Education, Title III Grant PO31A980143
Sherri Winans, Whatcom Community College, Bellingham, WA