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Composition Forum 25, Spring 2012

Peckham, Irvin.Going North Thinking West: The Intersections of Social Class, Critical Thinking, and Politicized Writing Instruction. Logan: Utah State UP, 2010. 176 pp.

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Debra Frank Dew

Sometimes fisticuff arguments–no less compelling for the bare discursive contact–just need to be delivered. Going North Thinking West: The Intersections of Social Class, Critical Thinking, and Politicized Writing Instruction situates the author, Irvin Peckham, as a working class academic who crossed over into the middle-class enterprise of teaching writing and directing a writing program in a research-intensive university. Part literacy narrative, yet centrally a polemic and an apologia for “just” writing, his project revisits our debates over the design and aims of first-year writing. Importantly, Peckham offers his best lived sense of what sort of writing instruction most benefits crossover working-class “lads” like himself (3-4). In the end, he defends a “just” writing pedagogy as most appropriate for going west.

Peckham’s project of analyzing the “intersections between writing, teaching, and social class” (1) gains authority as a literacy narrative of a working class academic. He himself “crossed over” from the “rural” and the “working-class” to the “urban” and “excessively middle-class” (1-4); hence, Peckham’s theory follows in kind—successful working-class “lads” may “meld into the dominant classes in adulthood, [but] they never lose their working-class origins and the internal conflicts that arise from the past rubbing against the present” (4). Peckham is “particularly interested in how progressive writing teachers like [himself] maintain social class structures while thinking [they] are working against them” (11). He claims we “need to be concerned . . . about the graduate students and instructors who do the bulk of our teaching,” as they may “inadvertently transform the writing classroom into an ideological war zone in which working-class students are inevitably the losers” (14). His title captures this tension as it claims that well-meaning academics, those of us who either administer first-year programs or teach FYC, go north even as we think west.

With a bare-knuckled intensity that is both experientially grounded and theoretically critical, Peckham offers pedagogical caution for mediating working-class students’ experiences in our contemporary writing classrooms. He draws rich “snippets of language” from his family, specifically his father, to illustrate a working-class privileging of language practices that enable “function over form” (28), and he moves beyond observation to claim that “a middle-class speaker might . . . imagine that working-class English is inferior,” but “the difference is largely one of codes that signal social class membership” (29). His aim is to help us better understand working-class students’ home discourses and the language code conflicts that impact their learning within the writing classroom. For working-class students, conflicts ensue between the “behavior and values” of home and those of school, between the “home and school ethos” (6). If working-class students opt to “retain their parents’ language and confirm their parents’ values,” middle-class teachers may read these choices as “resistance, evidence of uneducability, or as a learning disability” (48). Instead, he asks us to honor and respect our working-class students’ lives and aims in learning to write and not let our middle-class affiliations over-determine our practices.

Peckham situates his “critique of critical pedagogy within the common linkage of critical thinking and good writing” to argue that a privileging of “argumentation for its own sake” is prototypically “middle-class” (12). The emphasis on critical thinking and argumentative genres in FYC may be double trouble for our working-class students. He explains: “Critical thinking is a more subtle social class signifier than language, tricking many who think they are working on behalf of marginalized social groups into acting as agents of social reproduction” (49). The FYC controversial issue essay works from “central features” of argumentative genres that “conflict with the working-class ethos” (68). The genre’s “objective pose,” for example, is more readily accepted by students from “higher social levels” than “working-class writers” (69); working-class students of more “circumscribed experiences” and fixed identities may then struggle to shift and contextualize their perspectives as expected and rewarded within academic writing (73). While “[w]orking class kids certainly do learn to argue,” the “mode and rhetorical situation” of their primary Discourses are “at odds with the kind of argument we teach in our writing courses” (85). A challenge here is to reflect on the degree to which those of us who teach critical thinking privilege ways of reasoning that do not complement working class students’ home communities of practice. Argumentative genres as standard fare in FYC can run counter current to working-class students’ argumentative habitus.

While Peckham subscribes to much of the critical agenda of a cultural studies model and its world view, the approach may disguise stratifying strategies “by privileging the ways of thinking, acting, and writing that are characteristic of the higher social groups and antithetical to the working-class habitus” (89). He finds three central problems embedded within the cultural studies model: “the displacement of writing instruction, vanguardism, and student resistance” (93). The first questions the degree to which courses that focus on reading and discussing political issues “suppress a focus on writing instruction,” and the second, vanguardism, applies to critical pedagogues with an “urge to correct students’ naïve perception of the world” and their “thinking about . . . diversity and difference” (96-97). Working-class students’ “resistance to resistance pedagogy” follows in kind. In the end, we “have students who haven’t learned very much about writing” (110), because we have not taught them “writing strategies that will help them survive undergraduate school and succeed in their after-school professional lives” (111). Conversely, Peckham calls us to reconsider the greater good of a “just” writing practice.

Peckham’s polemic stands upon his foundational premise that “the primary purpose of [writing] classes is to help students improve their writing abilities within a family of genres” (112). As local WPA responsible for TA training and the design and delivery of FYC at his research-intensive university, he “ask[s] teachers to focus on writing strategies that will help students cope with writing tasks they are likely to meet in other undergraduate courses—strategies [they] have determined by analyzing specific writing assignments teachers in a variety of disciplines have sent us” (112). He posits his “just” writing design as the right westward course of curricular action for working-class students and defends it against charges of instrumentalism, where “‘[i]nstrumentalism’ is thus more complicated than its critics have suggested” (115). If we derogate instrumentalism to eschew “just” writing, we in effect, level an assault against “a working-class student’s home Discourse” (114). With this critical defense of the instrumental as integral if not central to our FYC missions, Peckham advances our debates over the design and aims of first-year writing.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Thus far, I have largely given sway to the book’s greater claims for the rhetorical floor, honoring the author’s passionate aims and forthright analysis. As reviewer, however, I am now called into the critical role of offering my evaluative response, so I choose here to deliver a working-class literacy vignette to make common crossover cause with Irv Peckham—ear’ole to ear’ole.

In the fall of my senior year of high school, I was admitted to the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, a branch campus known for excellence in teacher preparation. Happenstance had brought Ms. Spencer to small-town, rural Wisconsin to teach us Spanish, and I excelled such that she offered me an independent study, where I team taught first-year students. As a working class kid, I had ambition, but little sense of the college experience, so Ms. Spencer helped me apply to her alma mater to likewise study Spanish. Early in the fall term, I happened upon my peers’ hallway chatter about counseling sessions for all college-bound seniors. Word was that Ernie Mitchell, our school’s lone counselor for glory, for shame, was calling us in for advising sessions, working his way alphabetically through our senior class. Beth Faber, locker mate to the left of me, was scheduled for her appointment on Monday, so my excitement grew, as I just knew that the “Frank” kid (me) came right before our star quarterback, “Gaffke,” with the locker just right of me. Tuesday came, and Wednesday, then Thursday. Finally, I confronted “Gaffke” to my right: “Say, did you have your advising session with Ernie, yet?” And he responded, “Sure thing, on Tuesday morning I did.” Gaffke’s “Sure thing” startled me into what I would only later come to theorize as a standpoint of critical class consciousness. Ernie had excluded me from his list of college-bound students because of class-affiliation, gender, and a whole host of variables that I did not see coming.

I don’t recall what if anything I said to Gaffke in the moment, but I stormed down the hallway straight into the front office, and demanded something like—“I want an appointment with Ernie Mitchell.” And the expected response came back, “You do? What for, dear?” So I continued, “I am going to college. That is why, and he is meeting with ALL college bound students. I want to meet with him, too!” By day’s end, I was called in for my appointment, and Ernie started off with a generic opener, “What is it that you want to meet with me about?” I gave him the what for: “I am going to college, and I have already been accepted. Right here is my paperwork, so you can see that I have been accepted. Now what is it that you have been telling my classmates about? What do I need to do for this advising session?” Ernie’s chubby mouth gaped with a retort, “You are? You’re going to college? I didn’t know that.” And I replied, “Yes, I am going to college. I am going to Whitewater to study Spanish, so now you know!”

I am the working class kid whose journey through university was likewise marked by the dissonance of cross-cultural struggle. I am now the working-class academic with tell-tale markers and strong commitments to my familial origins and the soothing language codes of small-town Wisconsin. Laboring from my own class-conscious roots, yet mindful of “just” writing’s gift to our professional selves and our students, I have theorized my own administrative and pedagogical pathway to a writing-about-writing vision of good work. My very public exclusion from Ernie Mitchell’s college-bound list traumatized me into a standpoint of critique. I lived the trauma and knew enough of its logic to resist it through action. As working class kid, my own rough-cut mode of critical thinking and argument (fisticuff street rhetoric, if-you-will) propelled me into action.

Later on as an English MA student, I too underwent a formative, early-process rebirth in the early ‘80s, both a profound theoretical and ideological conversion as aspiring writing teacher and an impactful learning experience as a struggling writer in need of safe harbor. I honor those who gave me the selfless gift of their “just” writing practice at a critical point of educational need (Russel Durst, in particular). But now, I locate myself as kindred spirit to those social strand pedagogues, who attempt to “fill the putatively empty rhetorical situation of required writing classes” precariously with culture or writing itself as “the object of study” (86). Whereas “just” writing’s ethos of care secured me and work on my writing process empowered me, I needed critical tools to account for the class-based traumas of my youth. I needed to learn to write well instrumentally, but for me, such learning never satisfied my own fierce need to name and to resist the exclusionary logic of class-based schooling practices. With Irv Peckham, I believe “[w]e should listen carefully to each other and learn how to give ground to find common spaces” (161). We should listen to one another’s working class stories, complicate our theoretical premises, and continue our vital debates.

With forthright aims, Peckham’s fisticuff apologia for “just” writing admits that “underneath [rhetoric and composition’s professional] water are unacknowledged demons fighting some kind of primal battle that is the real source of the waves” (96-97), and these are our issues around FYC’s theoretical design and subsequent aims, issues that need to be engaged and extended in the context of FYC curricular innovations including digital and new media writing and the Writing-about-Writing (WAW) movements. We may begin this debate with Peckham’s forceful and enduring imperative: “[T]eachers should investigate their students’ literacy skills and goals, honor them, and work with them to help them improve their skills and reach their goals, even though their goals may be quite different from the ones teachers had in mind” (101, emphasis added). As the stakes for working-class students and others are so very high, I will close by proposing that Peckham’s argument, with its currents and contrary winds, be staged in like manner as the 2005 CCCC debate on “Arguing the End of Composition Studies.” Chaired by Doug Hesse, and delivered by David Smit, Joseph Harris, and Daniel Royer, this panel productively advanced our central investment in the design and aims of first-year composition. Irvin Peckham’s Going North Thinking West makes a solid case for much more of the same.

Works Cited

Smit, David, Joseph Harris, and Daniel Royer. “Arguing the End of Composition Studies.” Chair Douglas Hesse. Conf. on Coll. Composition and Communication Convention. Moscone Center, San Francisco. 18 Mar. 2005. Panel.

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