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).
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.