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Complicating Class Assumptions: Theirs and Mine
Donna Qualley, Western Washington University 

I think about the work that I attempt to do as a teacher of writing and reading. My syllabi announce to students that "my job as a teacher is to complicate your thinking." What do I mean and why have I made complicating the thinking of others my task? And how, in the process, has my own thinking been complicated?

The genesis of my teaching is located in the confluence of two approaches best characterized by David Bartholomae and Donald Murray. (And if I had time, it would be interesting to do a class analysis of their practices; I suspect we’d be surprised). These pedagogies have been further tempered (or Qualley-fied) because of who I am, where I work and who(m) I teach. My students, almost all white, middle-class, and between 18-22 years of age, are generally fluent when they arrive at the university. They come knowing and believing in the importance of school-speak language, even if they are not able to fully control it. For me, though, teaching writing always involves teaching students to see writing as something more than a communicative vehicle (especially in a style characterized by what Barbara Ehrenreich calls "rhetorical fake elegance" (157)). I try to design courses that invite students to begin the process of questioning and examining their subjects and the manner in which they are writing about them. Complicating is my shorthand term for describing a number of moves including helping students to deepen a line of thought or analyze an assumption – usually from the position of another perspective or counter-discourse.

However, in the process of preparing for this presentation, I’ve discovered that my students’ ideas are not the only ones getting complicated. I’m beginning to suspect that my approach, rather than working against the grain of cultural currents might also indicate the extent to which I myself am caught up in them. In what ways might my pedagogy of complication with its ongoing cycles of revision and recursiveness simply be a response to fears of my own academic (lower-)middle-classness?

In his somewhat haughty book on class, Paul Fussell notes that university professors are "assiduous class climbers" because they are often "recruited from the lower middle class, a milieu not remarkable for their grace of mind, flexibility or breadth of culture, or scope of imagination" (170). This characterization may be unfair; but it is not unfair to note that some of us have internalized these cultural depictions anyway. Maybe it was our intellect that got us here, but more than likely it was just hard work.

As Albert Einstein observed, "there are many thousands of individuals on this planet more intelligent than myself. I, however, work at it eighteen hours a day." Like Einstein, I have attributed any distinction I have managed to achieve since high school to effort, persistence, and determination—but never to intelligence or ability. When my tenth grade math teacher, Mrs. Paisley, announced to my accelerated algebra class that even Donna had finally gotten the answer, I became forever marked as "the dumbest of the smart kids." (From then on, I knew that the only way I could compete would be through sheer perseverance and work). Odd. Because as a child, I attributed everything I did to my own innate talent. At seven, I called myself "Donna the Great." By the time I was fifteen, I was simply "Donna, the great worker."

Today, at forty-eight, a writer, a teacher of writing, and a writing program administrator, I am still the great worker. Work hard. Study more. Over-complicate—I mean over compensate for being average. I recall the name of an old movie-- A Life Less Ordinary. I never saw it. I have no idea what the story is about, but the title resonates. How do we create a life less ordinary except through our own labor? Or is hard work simply how we compensate for ordinary lives?

The process movement in composition studies celebrates—well, maybe recognizes— the labor of the ordinary life. Perspiration leads to inspiration I used to chant to my students. There is value in the struggle. My Grandma Qualley probably did as much as anyone to contribute to my easy acceptance of my fate as "dumbest of the smart kids." She insisted that the spirit of hard work and rugged individualism was the country’s crowning achievement. "Ah," she would muse, "It’s a great life if you don’t weaken." Indeed.

I tell myself that if only I labor long enough and hard enough I will eventually come to understand what it is I am doing. (It’s what I tell my students too). It is no surprise that I would eventually gravitate to a labor-intensive discipline like composition studies and accept a job at a labor-intensive, regional state university like Western Washington. In middle-tier institutions like mine, class angst often runs high. Faculty in research institutions know who they are; faculty in the community colleges know who they are; But those of us in the middle? We’re too busy distinguishing what we are not (and wanna be) from what we are (and don’t wanna be) to actually know who we are or what we could be. My pedagogy of complication could simply be a reflection of my own psychic dis-equilibrium.

Or it may be the result of my location in an English Department where composition is accepted, although seldom understood as a truly genuine subject. My focus on inquiry in first year writing may simply be my way of displaying the intellectual and critical base of the field, thus legitimizing the course in the minds of my colleagues. (Hey, everyone, look! We do theory too!). I wonder, to what extent is my critical approach just a desire for departmental respectability? Why, I ask myself, did I really change the name of the first year writing course from Language and Exposition to Writing and Critical inquiry?

Truth be told, I’m not really concerned with where I work. I like being in the frenetic middle; even with all of the craziness, it still contains the best possibilities for both/and teaching and learning. I came to theory through pedagogy, and to pedagogy I always return. I refuse to be a separated from my labor either as a teacher or a WPA. I don’t want to be one of those Boss Compositionists that Joe Harris and James Slevin talk about, the one whose role is simply to manage a program, delegating the actual hands-on labor and emotional work of the job to instructors and graduate directors. In a similar way, I don’t want my students to be separated from their labor of writing and reading. I want them to see that the learning is in the labor. Sometimes, though. I do have to do a little complicating of their thinking before they will consider it.

Works Cited

Ehrenreich, Barbara. Fear of Falling. New York: Harper, 1989.

Fussell, Paul. Class: A Guide Through the American Status System. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983.

To Nichols

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