Thursday, June 10, 2010

Scaling the North Face

Introductory Bio

Catherine Prendergast is a Professor of English, University Scholar, and Director of First Year Rhetoric at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is the author of Buying into English: Language and Investment in the New Capitalist World (Pittsburgh, 2008). She has previously written on race in the writing classroom in Literacy and Racial Justice: The Politics of Learning after Brown v. Board of Education (Southern Illinois, 2003).

Blog Entry

There are moments when you can almost hear your student evaluations whistling as they careen and then plummet. I have many such moments, the most recent of which was when I pointed out that 25% of the women in the class—four out of sixteen—were wearing the identical North Face black fleece jacket. Mine was not a (completely) gratuitous observation; we had been engrossed in a lesson on making sense of primary sources, using as an example dressing charts published in the 1950s by the University of Illinois’ Dean of Women’s office. These charts detail in excruciatingly hetero-normative terms how co-eds should dress for every possible school occasion (e.g., “heels if ‘he’s’ tall, flats if ‘he’s’ short”). Although my university no longer has a Dean of Women and no longer circulates explicit instructions for student dress, we agreed as a class that—yes—there were still norms for dress on campus. But how did these norms get conveyed? Referencing the North Face jacket, I asked one of its wearers: Why did you buy it? (I asked it as a naïve question—but really, it is a genuine question, because in my soul of souls I don’t exactly know the answer.) The student looked at me with something close to loathing and replied, “Because it’s warm.”

Lest you think that this student resisted critical thinking entirely, please know that she was bravely enacting a critique of me, her professor, in terms I would clearly understand as the equivalent of “Drop it.” Brilliantly intertextual, her comment recalled a moment earlier in the semester when I had made a more oblique challenge to undergraduate conformity in outerwear by demonstrating what counts as a warm jacket. This moment was of the kind described in Dennis Lynch, Diana George, and Marilyn Cooper’s “Moments of Argument,” (CCC, 48.1, 1997) in which the greatest fear is not that one might lose an academic argument—and by “academic” I mean in this case “pointless”—but that one might have to change. As I describe below, I’ve come to consider this fear as a main contributing factor to student failure to subject significant data points to rigorous scrutiny.

Some background to the moment: My first non-graded assignment asked students to write about what bothered them about their university. What, I asked them, has gotten under your skin since you came here? What would you like to change? I got one essay on the budget (collapsing), one on the lack of professors in their classes, another on the admissions scandal that made national news the year my students had applied, five essays on the horrible dorm food, and five more on the bus system and its failure to adhere to its announced schedule. I might be exaggerating and there were only three essays on the busses, but by the time I read the third, it felt like five.

The bus essays in particular demonstrated the legacy of schooling in that they all shared the same problem: no problem. The students were playing the assignment safe by inflating a problem they really didn’t care about, but found vaguely annoying. The bus was not just late, it was really late, leaving them not merely cold but freezing to death. I realized after bus essay two that the majority of my students were relying on public transportation for the first time in their lives; never in these essays did my students compare the university public transportation system to the one in Chicago (rarely on time) or anywhere else in the country (rarely on time), nor did the conclusions of these essays lead their authors or readers to step into the shoes of people who have to rely on public transportation to traverse distances greater than the square mile of campus my students were tasked with navigating. Meanwhile, the dorm food essays decried the Freshman 15.

This was clearly my fault, walking into the non-problem, problem-posing essay. And I was determined to walk out of it. Indulging in a little performance art, on a sixteen-degree day I walked the twenty minutes from my house to class wearing about five layers and my incredibly unfashionable yet super-warm parka. Velcro-ed to my eyeballs, sweating profusely, I asked my students if any of them would even leave their dorm room dressed like me. They looked at me with pity—some with alarm—and shook their heads. We agreed that although hideous, the attire would keep anyone alive while waiting for the bus. We then worked on some real problems, problems they cared about, problems they made me care about, and the class hummed along from there—until we hit the 1950s dressing charts.

We’re accustomed to looking back to the 1950s as the heyday of conformity, when the sheer hint of difference was threatening. Think Mitzi Gaynor’s “corny as Kansas in August,” Nellie Forbush taking a crash course in racial difference in South Pacific. Nellie’s investments are made clear in a few songs; she is from Little Rock, Arkansas, the crucible of white identity maintenance, soon to be the location of the first troop-enforced integration of formerly all-white public schools. She’s exactly the kind of figure the audience of South Pacific is meant to find immediately identifiable—until, that is, the price of that identification is revealed as including acceptance of her narrow, prejudicial views. Each age has its Nellies, though the price of conformity is not so clearly spelled out as it might be in a cautionary tale for the stage. To the contrary, Jennifer Seibel Trainor’s insightful study of racial identifications in an all-white suburban high school demonstrates that the work of policing the boundaries of white identity cannot be easily disentangled from the school’s own rigorous warnings regarding the “fates of students who don’t perform or conform” (Rethinking Racism 55).

When diversity has been discussed thus far on this blog, it has been rightly suggested that the term, in its capacity to encompass all difference, dilutes the work of flagging inequalities along persistently familiar lines. However, I want to go back to diversity’s most common definition—difference, of any kind—and the real threat that that kind of amorphous difference poses to students who, on balance, face even more precise measures of conformity than their grandmothers did. Consider that our university dressing charts of the 1950s told co-eds to wear flats, but they didn’t specify a brand. Students’ margin for error in fashion seems to have become more unforgiving since then, while the cost of staying on the straight and narrow path has become even more expensive: The ability to buy a $165.00 fleece jacket with a North Face logo on the back right shoulder and $180.00 Ugg boots is now the going price for visible conformity—quite a hit on top of double-digit tuition hikes. North Face jackets and Uggs not only adorn a good percentage of my class, their cost (with tax) also represents nearly twenty percent of the university’s $2000.00 estimate for “personal, clothing, and Sunday evening meal” expenses for first-year students.

My one African-American student in this class was nowhere near conforming, literally or otherwise. He was 24 years of age, a vet of the war in Iraq, married, perplexed by why students ride the bus one block, but afraid to say so in class (he stayed around after my parka demo to chat and told me so). He floundered on the problem-posing essay for utterly different reasons than his white and younger classmates; he wrote that compared to his time in the Army, nothing seemed like a problem to him anymore. He certainly didn’t wear North Face clothing. Even if he had wanted to conform, he would have known that buying a jacket wasn’t going to make much of a difference on a campus where he represents a rapidly dwindling single-digit percentage of the undergraduate population. I worry about this student, and also other African-American students, who have to take the extended “non-traditional” and life-threatening route to affirm his own diversity. But I also worry about all my students and their capacity to step out of an atmosphere of conformity into a university classroom where questioning the taken-for-granted is required. Don’t get me wrong: I don't think it's my job to get students to think—or dress—as I do. That would be trading one kind of conformity for another, right? I do, however, think my job is to tell them when their audience is hopelessly narrow (as in other people who will sympathize with brief public transportation dilemmas), to encourage them to write about something that they really care about (and it is not the busses), and to write about a problem that they can convince an academic audience has real consequences (definitely not the busses). If it is too risky for these students to buy a different jacket, how are they going to risk writing about a real problem, never mind those thorny problems that implicate their desire and ability to buy that jacket in the first place?

This is a blog. Discuss.


Anonymous said...

Interesting that "conformity", much though juveniles the world over like to rail against it, still dictates the same vein, the demand that one's employment be not only fulfilling but serve some higher purpose is another strongly held value...As I've grown older, I've learned that simply being employed is sufficient.

Anonymous said...

"But I also worry about all my students and their capacity to step out of anatmosphere of conformity into a university classroom where questioning the taken-for-granted is required."

Is questioning the taken-for-granted required in the university classroom? I've been taking a 100-level nutrition class this summer in the same flagship state university where I teach. As far as I can see, for many students the purpose of a university class is to give them new realms of information to take for granted. I sometimes hear students questioning what they are learning in informal conversations before and after class, but the idea that they could do so during class time as part of the learning process simply doesn't occur to them.

The course includes ways that such challenges could take place (there's an online discussion board and the instructor encourages questions during lecture), but most questions have to do with either clarification of the course material or questions about grading. The course is designed around the powerpoint slides; the bulk of the course grade consists of exams in which the challenge is replicating the data on the slides as requested in response to exam questions (much of the pre-exam "review session" consists of the
instructor explaining just how fine-grained she expects the recall of particular slides to be). It's all friendly and convivial and informal; the instructor clearly wants the students to succeed and they have a good rapport with her. I think everyone believes they are having a great learning experience.

But I am appalled at the way that there is no, none, not ANY expectation that some more deeply critical engagement could take place. And it could, so easily! As the students themselves recognize, the realm of nutrition is a rapidly changing field with high stakes--a little bit of contextualization could situate the raw data being presented within what students already nebulously know and find difficult to square with the course: that geography and history alter nutritional needs, requirements, and expectations on a variety of levels, and that research is constantly presenting new information that alters what we think we know. But instead the students are memorizing a lot of
facts that seem fairly random, because there is no framework for
distinguishing crucial facts from subordinate facts other than what will or won't be on the exam. Since there aren't too many of these random facts, and the instructor takes pains to make sure no one memorizes a fact that may not be elicited on the exam, everyone is happy.

How can students understand that it's okay--even necessary--to engage
critically in courses like ours, when they are taking all these other classes where critical engagement isn't even on the table as a possible--much less desirable or useful--thing to do?

lauriem said...

I'd love to hear how the difficult moment with the student can be turned around. Sometimes I find myself in those moments when students resist where I'm going, and the tendency I've found most productive is to back off and approach from another direction--perhaps talking about my own choices, or telling a story that made me think differently about conformity. But I like to hear about what others do when students shut down....

Anonymous said...

When I first began teaching rhet/comp, I felt dismayed and self-conscious, I blushed with shame coming upon following comment on a course evaluation: "Instructor has a liberal bias" ("...whistling, careening").

And didn't I? Yes. I reflected upon the way I asked questions designed to promote critical thinking. Was there a righteous agenda fueling such prompts to "critical engagement"? Yes: Coming to the table of class discussion, I had already distinguished between what one respondent here refers to as "crucial facts" versus "subordinate facts." And my own class, racial and social background fostered what my students (Texans) called a "liberal bias" --something which many of my colleagues, for good reason, but off the record, might consider a superior standpoint for critical thinking.

For white instructors especially, a risky but potentially effective invitation to critical thinking is to implicate ourselves openly in internalizing cultural norms we'd like our students to question. This approach can and may seem narcissistic, but it also can serve as a powerful model for critical thinking, a process that necessarily implicates unconscious self-conceptions that may well benefit the individual in some ways. Many of us have tactics for modeling self-reflective self-implication, though they beg for refinement and discussion.

I think it's very useful to share how we perform (with sincerity) this practice of self-reflection, of self-scrutiny, of critical thinking about self-implication in Foucaultian mechanisms ( or however we frame our inquiries). And I think this can be playful engagement, even while it generates important insight. Our students do want to play intellectually, and in the classroom, we can effectively take on the role of the "big kid," in Vygotskian terms:
Just as I once did, Most of my students once took great pleasure in the variety of colors blooming in a Crayola crayon box. And oh! The largest box of all--how many many crayons did it contain? Do you remember? This box even had a sharpener! And those colors. What were some names? Lavender, more than three shades of brown! How delicious the names, how they linked to sensuous and alluring things in the world to enhance our pleasure of the colors and those things we touched and smelled. And there was one color we now call peach. But my box was manufactured in the 1970s, and this color was named...What do you think? Yes, "flesh," or as we--my friends in an all-white school district--called it, "skin color." Why am I making quotation marks in the air as I use those terms?

"Flesh," the color of my skin, if I have "peach colored" skin or something like it, is the color of skin. The norm. But I did not yet think about that. I loved my crayons! Still, I internalized this thinking: White people are humans, people with skin. They do not have a color, unlike "colored people" (Why is that term considered so offensive now?)---

Students respond to this outstretched hand, this invitation to examine the impact of material culture in shaping the social and cultural norms we would like them to "deconstruct," to use that term loosely. This is self-implication functioning as a safe platform from which students may launch inquiries that might, presented as questions that smell of agenda, otherwise generate sullen and defensive resistance.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting entry. People look at the past, or at other cultures, and think, omg, how senseless things are/were. University education must train people to look at our own time and culture and take fewer things for granted. (-shyam)

bstull said...

CP's essay raises a wonderful conundrum. Focus on this line: "Don’t get me wrong: I don't think it's my job to get students to think—or dress—as I do."

It seems that her essay offers a counter to this claim, thus revealing the conundrum not only about diversity of dressing but about intellectual diversity, as well.

CP calls into question her students' dressing habits--and they know it--when she asks why they purchase North Face clothing. It seems that she thinks they are wrong to do so (and wrong not to know why they do so), and hopes they can find the courage to step outside of the circles of clothing conformity in which they are trapped. While she might not want them to buy the branded (or brandless) clothing that she herself wears, at the very least she wants them to join her in her ability to call the brand into question.

It seems that true commitment to diversity would mean that professors would let these students dress however they want to and not feel threatened by their commitment to conformity.

I would suggest, however, that we professors can only be committed to diversity within limits: we want students to conform to our standard, which is commitment to questioning all standards. We want them to stand outside their communities and call these communities into question, thus conforming to our own intellectual norms.

This isn't bad.

Truth be told, I would argue that it is good.

However, it is in itself a retreat from a full-blown commitment to diversity in its most basic sense.

We do want students to think like we do, at our best, if by that we mean an unwavering commitment to asking "why" and "how" about all aspects of human and non-human being. If they don't follow us down this road-alienating as it often is--then aren't we at least a bit disappointed?

Catherine Prendergast said...

Thanks for the insightful comments all and keep them coming! I think it is only fair that we model critical thinking on ourselves (as another commentator suggested). I did ask my students for their thoughts on why professors in English departments chronically dress in black and muted tones. I offered (because the students seemed hesitant to really let 'er rip) that we often pretend to a kind of cosmopolitanism, even in suburban or rural settings; we can be at times a little morose and tragic. So we had a good laugh about it. But bstull will probably not be assuaged by this report, nor should be. As suspected, I am tired of the North Face jackets, and do think it (and here's my key point) A SIGNIFICANT DATA POINT that a full one quarter of women in my class wear the same jacket when there are so, so many on the market. Maybe next time a little research into North Face, Inc., is in order. According to the company's own website, those of us who live in supremely flat Illinois have much to gain from their product.
"For nearly 30 years, the Company's outdoor apparel and outdoor equipment have been the brand of choice for numerous high altitude and polar expeditions. These products are used extensively by world-class climbers, explorers and extreme skiers, whose lives depend on the performance of their apparel and equipment.... The Company cultivates its extreme image through its targeted marketing efforts and its teams of world-class climbers, explorers and skiers."

Anonymous said...

My sense is that the pedagogy needs tweaking. The goal would be to get students invested in the GAME of COLLECTIVELY identifying the allure of ID-affirming social moves, of intellectualizing the phenomena (which requires maintaining some distance from the self), and of thus learning to enjoy "rereading" themselves at a critical level (seeing themselves through a new lens).

I'm uncomfortable with the teacher-on-student aspects of this incident--which has invited the student to continue thinking of teachers as enemies--a stance well honed by many high school students.

So I'm not sure that diversity is the key issue here.

Kirstin W. said...

There's an unspoken moral issue at play here, it seems to me, and while it's a pressing one, I'm not sure how as writing instructors we can best address it.

So we're teaching writing to an innately unreflective student whose extreme ecoomic privilege shows in her ability to buy the same jacket that everyone else has. Her writing affirms this fundamental shallowness: when urged to identify a problem in her encounters with the university, she can't really come up with much besides the fact that she's taking public transportation for the first time in her life and she doesn't like it.

At what point does wanting this student to think more critically about her life (as an entry point to thinking more critically in general) shade into wanting this student to change into someone *better*, someone more like, well, us?

This is a little different than wanting students to think like we do (or dress in non-North-Face black like we do!)--but it is asking students to NOT care about the stupid things they care about (waiting for the bus in the cold is no fun) and to care (or at least, convincingly pretend to care) about the intelligent things we want them to care about (e.g., the dwindling percentage of African-American students at UIUC).

I certainly hope that one effect of coming to college is that a student whose world-view as a freshman doesn't extend much beyond the inconvenience of taking a bus will expand into a recognition and concern for more pressing, less self-centered issues. But I'm still wrestling with how, precisely, to work *with* the anti-intellectual grain of such a student rather than simply presenting her with a new college-level set of non-problems (as far as she's concerned) with which she needs to feign concern in order to get an A from me.

Anonymous said...

Catherine Prendergast said...

I think the teacher/student dyad creates an unsatisfying rubric through which to evaluate what counts as an important question. At least at Research 1 universities, writing successfully in part involves understanding what makes a question significant to an academic audience. Part of the joy of an academic writing class is helping the student find that the question they are obsessed with can be made interesting to an academic audience. That's where research and rhetoric come in. What is of academic interest is happily not in the teacher's control. The academic audience is not entirely within the classroom, and must be included in any conversation about knowledge-making in an academic writing class.

Catherine Prendergast said...

And a big shout out to whomever put up that YouTube video! Hilarious. Surely beats the charts from the 1950s Dean of Women's office!

Anonymous said...

You're sure that each of your students who complained about the bus system had no disabilities, visible or invisible, that would demand they ride the bus? I once had a student drop my summer class because of the erratic bus schedule and the fact that she was not supposed to get any sweat on the sensors on her back designed to keep her from having seizures. Her disability was completely invisible. You know that none of your students had similar problems? And that they would have written about them in an essay that might be exposed to others in the class through peer response or other activities? I'm curious as to why you are so eager to label their problems as non-problems. I don't know enough about my students to judge them in such ways.

Nels said...

The comment about the student with the invisible disability is fascinating to me because I, too, had a student write about busing when I was teaching at Ohio State (for a problems-on-campus essay), and the essay was, frankly, boring. I found out later that she really believed what she did because of her disability, but she didn't want to write about it because she did not want to expose herself during peer response. She understood that including that evidence would greatly enhance her essay, but she felt it was too risky. A C was a better option for her.

Catherine Prendergast said...

Actually one of these students did do a semester long research project on access and disability at the university and it was great! I think I erred in asking them to write about what "annoys" them because writing about an annoyance is not the same about writing about a problem. It's not that my students don't have genuine problems, but they don't believe they can write about them for an academic audience, or use those problems as springboards for interesting research questions that would engage others. How to convince that they can and should?

Catherine Prendergast said...

Another deep thought here inspired by Nels' and Kristin W.'s wonderful comments: Isn't the biggest problem on campus always the one that no one can see? Actually I'm disappointed if my students write about what I think of as a problem. I'm thrilled if they show me a problem I never saw--such as the student who wrote about the whopping library fee undergrads pay, 1 million of which funds an HVAC unit in a rare book room that the undergrads rarely use (and the attendant moral issue). Or the student who did research showing that while tray-less dining did save water (and this topic directly from her annoyance) it did waste food. For good or for ill it is a requirement of academic writing that one marshall warrants for one's claims that a problem is a problem; the most compelling warrants, however, usually come from the problems that one didn't see coming. Academic writing is supposed to produce new knowledge, after all. But it has to do so in ways that connect to existing community concerns (defining community as it does so).

Anonymous said...

Why are bus routes not an academic problem but fashion is? Certainly, bus routes are the subjects of academic papers in disciplines such as engineering, urban affairs, and I imagine even business. Bus routes just aren't academic problems as defined by the humanities.

Anonymous said...

My feeling is that the student reacted badly because she was addressed in an (unintentionally) adversarial manner. "Why did you buy that jacket?" is a very loaded question, even if the tone of the speaker is neutral.
I recently had a similar discussion with my students, and I initiated the topic by recalling my high school days and the clique of girls in my class who always dressed identically. They thought that was hilarious, even though they do the same thing (!) Eventually, somebody said, "Hey, we all wear . . . " This was exactly where I wanted the discussion to go, but had I begun there, I think it would have been counter-productive.

Mairin B said...

I feel I have accidentally stumbled upon a pedagogical approach that tends to avoid these sorts of problems (most of the time, anyway). In my freshmen comp course, the goal for each student is to identify his or her own "lens," through which s/he already views the world, the educational system in which s/he is currently enmeshed, and the texts s/he reads in my class and will read in future classes.

I try to accomplish this by giving students very difficult reading assignments that lead to very difficult writing assignments. I have very high expectations, including that they develop their own writing prompts within broad parameters established by the composition program administrators at my university.

Some of the difficult texts I've used with some measure of success include Foucault's "Panopticism," hooks' "The Oppositional Gaze," Horkheimer and Adorno's "The Culture Industry," and various pieces of short fiction that might help them to analyze and apply the ideas they find interesting, troubling, or useful from the theoretical pieces.

I find these texts helpful because they are difficult, and students find they must read them more than once or twice just to make sense of them, and then a few times in order to write about them. Throughout all this reading and rereading, we have class discussions in which the students are encouraged to think and talk about WHY they are having the reactions they're having. Are they angry? Okay, fine -- why are they feeling angry? Does this piece question a deeply felt belief the students hold? What is this belief? How does the piece question it? How would the students answer these questions?

In order to avoid accidental contamination with my own political agenda, I make my pedagogical choices clear to my students. I tell them that my course is a "text," and like any other text in this class, it's fair game for analysis. I encourage them to evaluate my pedagogical choices through their newly discovered "lens."

I think this works so well in part because students feel empowered, and in part because of course my secret agenda is to get them to stand outside of themselves and employ critical thinking to identify their own "lenses." In the process of doing this, they often can't help but change a little bit, become a little bit better at critical thinking, and become a little bit better at reading.

Catherine Prendergast said...

Nineteen comments, including several of my own, none of which mention issues of race. Can we spare a thought for the African American student in the class who felt included and engaged by the discussion of dressing and whiteness, however critically challenging, and set aside for a moment, just a moment, our curiosity and concern about what pedagogy produces maximum comfort?

Catherine Prendergast said...

Nineteen comments, including several of my own, none of which mentions issues of race. Can we spare a thought for the African American student in the class who felt included and engaged by the discussion of dressing and whiteness, however critically challenging, and set aside for a moment, just a moment, our curiosity and concern about what pedagogy produces maximum comfort?

Anonymous said...

I think that race was tangential here, the primary issues being age and economics. As a 39 year old mother, returning to (grad) school, I can really identify with this African-American student. When the students around me complain about readings and homework, I feel that they just don't appreciate the freedom and opportunities they have. But they all grow up, and eventually they may even stop buying the same thing . . .

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