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Bollig, Chase. Students as Citizen-Workers. CCC, Dec. 2015. Posted 01/11/2016.

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Bollig, Chase. “‘Is College Worth It?’ Arguing for Composition’s Value with the Citizen-Worker.” College Composition and Communication 67.2 (2015): 150-72. Print.

Chase Bollig urges compositionists to address the ongoing debate about the value of college by adopting a view of students as “citizen-workers.” Bollig argues that the field must “[resist] the compartmentalization of higher education’s cultural, civic, and economic functions” (163). Such resistance can challenge what Bollig sees as reductionist views of the relationship between education and economics that proliferate in the public debate.

Bollig reviews the conversation within the “commentariat” (151) as to whether college is “worth it,” finding widespread agreement that people’s desire to attend college is related to the existence of “precarious job markets” (152) that both spur enrollment and raise questions about the trade-offs involved, especially when applicants are deemed underprepared.

According to one school of thought, a college degree is more important than ever in times of tight job markets (154), while another approach, which Bollig characterizes partly through the claims of economics professor Richard Vedder, laments an overproduction of college graduates as problematic in view of the economy’s need for people to do low-tech work (154-55). Supporters of the importance of a college degree reply that higher education provides “social capital” that is more important than specific skills learned; indeed, some contend that college admissions serve as markers for employers looking for workers capable of being inculcated into middle-class roles and values (156).

A thread in such discussions, Bollig reports, is the increasing cost of college attendance, which is blamed on such factors as “administrative costs” (157), but which Bollig ties to the question of whether higher education in general should be seen as a public good. He cites Jeffrey J. Williams, who associates the rising costs that students must bear with “the rollback of the welfare state” (qtd. in Bollig 157). This rollback transforms “the primary function of a university from being a social good to an individual investment,” a shift that Vedder supports because, in Vedder’s view, there is little or no “spillover effect” for society as a whole from an increase in college-educated citizens (157). Bollig sees the privatization called for by Vedder as an impediment to access that “naturalizes” the need for large amounts of student-loan debt (157), a burden that then disempowers employees who must hold onto jobs to pay back their loans (158).

Bollig explores prior efforts by composition scholars to valorize composition’s place in an institution that “is not a space but a market” (Williams, qtd. in Bollig 158). A number of defenses focus on college’s redistributive role, centering on issues of access like those related to the work of Mina P. Shaughnessy in showing that supposedly “ineducable” students can succeed if seen as “beginners” (159). Tom Fox similarly assumes that “redistributing wealth and privilege” and enhancing democracy are primary responsibilities of higher education (161). Bollig responds that discourses in support of access and redistribution “do not directly engage the market-oriented terms of the ‘worth it’ debate” (160). Such terms, for example, include claims by Vedder and others that remediation is not cost-effective and that inviting all to aspire to advanced literacy will “dilute quality” (Vedder, qtd. in Lauren Weber and Bollig 160). Moreover, Bollig writes, current trends that distinguish elite institutions from those attended by most students guarantee that stratification will persist regardless of educators’ beliefs in the equalizing potential of a college degree (161).

A second category of responses offered by compositionists in defending the value of college involves the role of higher education in fostering civic engagement. Bollig references work on service-learning to illustrate support for this view, but counters with cites from Catherine Chaput that efforts to produce effective “citizens” accept rather than challenge “the classed positionality into which we are hailed” (qtd. in Bollig 162).

Bollig presents Christopher Newfield as a scholar who does address economic factors in defending the value of college and particularly of humanities and social-science majors (162-63). Newfield believes that it is possible to “manage markets” by establishing the economic value of graduates in these fields (qtd. in Bollig 162; emphasis original). Chaput further states that the development of land-grant institutions specifically answered an economic exigency (163). These claims lead Bollig to suggest that

we in composition should reflect on how aspects of vocationalism can be appropriated to advance a reflexive, flexible vision of the relationship between higher education, composition, and the economy. (163)

Bollig develops the concept of the citizen-worker as it has been expressed in the work of a number of composition scholars. He draws on Joshua S. Hanan to explore the claim that classical rhetoric encourages separation of daily lived experience, including its economic aspects, from political involvement (164). Chaput and Tony Scott both advocate expanding the definition of “professionalism” to counteract a mindset that “distances college students and instructors from working-class Others” (164). Bollig cites scholarship by James Berlin, John Trimbur, and Russel K. Durst that argues for incorporating into the classroom a view of work that highlights its location in a larger, collective, democratic venue (165): Rather than banishing vocational concerns from the classroom, compositionists can encourage students to critically “examine their positionality as workers and consumers within the system of global capitalism” (165).

Extending this concept, Bollig urges making an examination of work “a mode of inquiry” that moves from a discussion casting “postgraduation employment as an individual problem” to one that “becomes an engagement with both the potential privileges of a degree and its limits” (166). In taking such steps, Bollig writes, the field can embrace the concerns and needs of the many students who must work while attending college, concerns and needs that he sees as absent from the extant debate (167).

Thus, in this view, making the “citizen-worker” the “subject of composition” (151) melds civic, economic, and political dimensions, a set of connections that are occluded both by the commentariat and by much scholarship in composition (168). This approach, Bollig believes, will allow composition not only to undercut the “literacy myth[s]” that tie education unproblematically to social mobility but also to advocate more effectively for the value of the work done in composition classrooms (168). One result, he believes, can be a renewed sense that the “mass literacy” (160) enabled by college is a “social good” (168).

Author: vanderso

I'm a recently retired associate professor of English in Southern Indiana. I've been teaching writing for twenty-five years, but I feel I have much to learn about how people really learn to write. In this blog, I'll be sharing research and thoughts and hopefully gathering information from others about the process of learning to write.

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