Tuesday, February 24, 2009

"Coming into Class"

ASU Composition Conference

On Friday, I made the Tucson to Phoenix trek with a colleague from my WPA seminar to see our celebrated professor and prolific writer Edward M White deliver his keynote speech. White often jests that he became known as the authority on writing assessment by default.

A Brooklyn Tale
White explained that what he was reading from came from his in-progress memoir, although some of the material was also included in a piece called "Coming into Class." White grew up in a working class household in Brooklyn, where his family was most proud of the fact that they had indoor plumbing. As a youth, White hid out in the Brooklyn City library to avoid the tough kids in the street, soon becoming consumed by books, reading all five volumes of The Three Musketeers by the age of 13.

Finding himself at Harvard because of his test taking skills and in spite of his father's best wishes (and an attempt to create diversity on campus), Ed earned his PhD and began teaching composition. Soon after, he secured himself a tenured track position at Wellesley, and explained that it wasn't too difficult teaching students of privilege what they already knew--White said that composition class wasn't too much different than the social norms the students followed at the formal dances.

100 Tiny Glances
Leaving a tenure track position at Wellesley, White headed west, taking a job at a new Cal State in the working class, railroad town of San Bernadino. It was there White "felt useful and the job worth doing."

White felt that the students in California were his kind of people because he didn't feel like an outsider for not having an extensive knowledge of wines. "I felt like an impostor," White said, "I had no style, and no class."
I believe White was quoting a colleague of his who got it right when he said, "class and race divisions were made up of 100 tiny glances."

For White, social class at Harvard and Wellesley felt like an extra curriculum that he would never quite master, sometimes feeling almost like "a part of the grounds-keeping crew."

Even at Cal State San Bernadino, White found that these students who weren't as prepared as their Ivy League, East Coast counterparts still were "doggedly determined" and possessed a resistance that White took as a trapping of class. While the upper class students tended to be complacent, the working class students were similarly resistant to White's higher aspirations for them.
In the end, White sees how both situations made him want to "free students of the biases of the class."

White added, "I don't win in my imaginary conversations with my father. He's been past away for some years now, but I'm still met with a look of scorn."

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