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Daniel, James Rushing. Freshman Comp as “Precarity.” CE, Sept. 2017. Posted 09/14/2017.

Daniel, James Rushing. “Freshman Composition as a Precariat Enterprise.” College English 80.1 (2017): 63-85. Web. 6 Sept. 2017.

James Rushing Daniel explores the concept of “precarity” as a means of understanding and acting on the challenges engendered by a “new economy” characterized by “hypercapitalism and wealth polarization” (65).

Daniel takes as his starting point Lynn Z. Bloom’s 1996 article, “Freshman Composition as a Middle-Class Enterprise,” in which she represented college writing as engaged in the production of “good citizens” whose roles were characterized by “safety, order, cleanliness, efficiency,” thus providing then-dominant economic and social structures with the kind of well-disciplined bodies necessary for their sustenance (qtd. in Daniel 63). Agreeing with other scholars about the importance of Bloom’s article as a discussion of how class impacts writing instruction, Daniel argues that changes in economic and social configurations since its publication have called on compositionists to rethink class issues (63-64).

He cites scholars who have begun to question the homogeneity of entities like “the working class.” However, he contends that these critiques have not fully addressed the effects of recent upheavals in current economic realities (64). These include “the ascendancy of the market, the abrupt shifts of the 2008 economic collapse, and the unsteady transition to the so-called ‘knowledge economy’” (64). He turns to the theory of precarity, developed in the social sciences, as a more productive lens through which to view the impacts of these changes (64).

“Precarity” refers to the “dislocations and uncertainties faced by those relegated from stable, salaried labor” (64). Such uncertainties are partly driven by the “casualization” of labor Daniel sees taking place. He points to increasing assaults on higher education that threaten the stability of faculty authority and the well-being of students as evidence that universities are sites of precarity such that the “ordered, middle-class identity” described by Bloom no longer pertains (65).

In Daniel’s formulation, precarity refers to individuals’ loss of agency and the destruction of their sense that “they belong to an occupational community steeped in stable practices, codes of ethics and norms of behavior, reciprocity, and fraternity” (Guy Standing, qtd. in Daniel 66). Most pronounced among lower-income groups, this “alienation” from the forces that determine the quality of people’s lives, in Daniel’s view, permeates social and economic populations once considered belonging to clearly defined working- and middle-classes.

Daniel writes that the result has been to upend the possibility of demarcating classes as theorized by Marxist scholars. Unlike Marxism, which “assumes the coherence of the proletariat as a discrete and uniform class with apparent interests . . . and the reconciliation of its immediate economic ends and its long-term political goals,” the “precariat” comprises disparate individuals inhabiting many social and economic strata, “a fragmented and disconnected population” (67). These conditions of difference make collective action more difficult to initiate or sustain (67).

Daniel reviews a number of scholars who have challenged the notion of “deterministic and categorical notions of class” (68). He argues that these scholars tend to be divided into factions, with some arguing that class is a linguistic, rhetorical phenomenon characterized both by the loss of voice for individuals and processes of naming and demarcating that usurp people’s ability to define their social identities. As a rhetorical phenomenon, class becomes a matter of “discursive negotiation” (69) that is “tied to the ebbs and flows of public discourse” (70).

Another faction identified by Daniel focuses on material conditions (68). This critique sees insecurity and loss of agency as governed by hierarchical structures intended to stratify individuals and solidify the differences among social levels (71). In this view, material inequality and impediments to economic mobility lead to an insecurity that pervades all reaches of social and economic activity, so that, in fact, students and faculty in different strata of the university actually share the condition of precarity (71).

Other scholars call on theorists studying class to address both rhetorical and material sources of precarity. This view calls for “[a]knowledging the blurring of identities” (John Tassoni, qtd. in Daniel 72) and, as Daniels says in quoting Isabell Lorey, “view[ing] the economically marginalized as collectively gathered in “social positionings of insecurity” . . . rather than stratified by class” (72).

Daniel traces scholarship drawing on this recognition of collective insecurity and loss of agency to suggest that teachers and students share membership in the precariat regardless of the many differences in their lived experiences and the differences imposed upon them by the “institutional divides that artificially partition the various groups within higher education” (73). Working to bring students to critical consciousness might be augmented by teachers sharing their own sense of instability and dislocation (72).

However, theorists of precarity note that the divisive tactics of capitalism and the heterogeneity of the precariat itself make achieving productive solidarity difficult (73). Daniel notes the tensions between part-time and tenure-track faculty and the ways in which the “managerial work of writing administration” participates in imposing class division (74):

By way of precarity theory, we may understand that all faculty are variously dislocated by contemporary conditions. Such a position promotes the flattening of our professional hierarchies and the creation of collectivities of common cause among academic ranks. (76).

In Daniel’s view, precarity theory works pedagogically to provide students with an intellectual space in which to take part in an active political life (76-77). This effort includes even those students “who leave” and are usually considered failures; attention to their “daily working lives” allows the classroom to illuminate the potential of all students (77). Understanding the pervasiveness of the precariat state can mean precarity itself “can function as a site of solidarity and political action” (77).

Daniel advocates forms of critical pedagogy that equip students to recognize how current political rhetoric exacerbates divisions that preclude effective collective responses; in his view, such efforts can redirect anger from scapegoats and toward responsible entities like the “financial sector” (79). He argues that rather than hoping students will discover this redirection, teachers with the security to risk doing so must guide students to the recognition that they can acquire political agency through solidarity with others who share the effects of exclusion and can practice that agency through acts of “localized dissent” (78). A central tenet is the sustenance of individual identities and differences; alliances formed through shared precarity become a “pluralistic mode of resistance” (80).

Daniel provides examples of solidarity among disparate actors drawn together by common cause, for example, the resistance at the University of Missouri (78) and in response to the Dakota Access Pipeline (74). Although conceding that such actions and the pedagogies that foster them cannot completely counter “the decline in American opportunity and the dismantling of higher education,” he contends that an approach grounded in precarity theory “attempts to bring our practices into alignment with our values and to theorize a more collective negotiation of the insecurity of composition” (82).


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

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).


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Horner, Bruce. Rewriting Composition. CE, May 2015. Posted 05/28/15.

Horner, Bruce. “Rewriting Composition: Moving beyond a Discourse of Need.” College English 77.5 (2015): 450-79. Print.

Bruce Horner responds to recent calls for composition to shift its focus in ways that are presented as radical departures but that Horner believes ignore composition’s history, endorsing and perpetuating reductionist dominant views of the field. Among Horner’s principal concerns is that these calls remove composition from the “material social practice” in which it is embedded (457). These calls, in his view, constitute a “discourse of need,” depicting composition as deficient, thus requiring “abandonment or supplement” (451).

Horner critiques David Smit’s The End of Composition Studies and Sidney Dobrin’s Postcomposition. Horner presents Smit as arguing that the goal of composition courses—providing “general writing skills” that will allow students to succeed in varied contexts—is unachievable because people learn to write only in the specific environments with which they engage. As a result, Horner writes, Smit recommends that composition should relinquish its focus on general writing skills and replace that focus with a writing-in-the-disciplines approach that will result in “real writing” that will be judged successful or unsuccessful by publics, editors, and employers (455-56).

Horner objects to this call because it accepts an inadequate definition of “writing” that reduces the content of composition to “a single, codified and fixed set of skills and knowledge.” This definition accords with the definition promoted by the market place, to which, in Horner’s view, Smit yields the right to define writing and to which he assigns the right to determine what good writing is (454-55). For Horner, this view leads to what Anthony Giddens has called a “normative functionalist reading of institutions and social practices: things are as they are and operate as they do because that is what their appropriate function is” (455). In such an endorsement of what is, Horner contends, students are cast as making rational, unitary choices about what kinds of writing will best serve their goals “as (simply, only) future employees” (454-55, 457). In Smit, according to Horner, this ascendancy of the free market is contrasted with the failure of the academy as an institution assumed to exist primarily to meet the market’s needs (455)

Horner argues that Dobrin’s Postcomposition similarly accepts dominant definitions of the work of composition despite the book’s claims to promote a rethinking of the field (458-59). According to Horner, Dobrin’s “debased view of the work of composition” (459) echoes dominant reductionist definitions of what writing pedagogy and practice ought to be. Dobrin sees that work as constrained by issues of “training” and “management”; unlike Smit, he rejects a doubling down on more effective pedagogy, choosing instead to call for an escape from pedagogical concerns by reframing the field as “writing studies” (459). Horner expresses dismay that Dobriin does not examine myriad previous work on what “writing studies” might entail (459); he is particularly concerned with Dobrin’s reduction of “writing” to an “abstraction” that Horner contends he does not define or recognize in its material contexts (460). Thus, in Horner’s view, Dobrin accepts capitalism’s expectations for what writing pedagogy should be and replaces this inadequate and inaccurate definition with an “idealist” alternative that is not anchored in material practice (459). Horner writes that Dobrin particularly accedes to the dominant view by accepting the technological demands of “fast capitalist ideals” (461) as the preferred focus of writing studies; Dobrin argues that composition must follows this lead, subjecting its “outmoded” past to “creative destruction,” or be left behind (Dobrin, qtd. in Horner 462). In Horner’s view, composition is seen as lacking by these writers because they allow it to be defined through the consumerist lens of the dominant culture.

Horner acknowledges that composition faces challenges like those Smit and Dobrin outline, but contrasts their handling of these challenges with the approaches of an economist team, J. K. Gibson-Graham, and a sociolinguist, Theresa Lillis. He illustrates his view of how theory might function productively in composition by discussing how these theorists do not choose to overturn their fields’ missions but rather seek to understand what prevents these fields from achieving their desired ends. Gibson-Graham rewrite capitalism to deny it the kind of power dominant views assign it; Horner compares this “hegemonic” view of capitalism to the way reductive views of composition take on hegemonic force in critiques like Smit’s and Dobrin’s. Lillis addresses the way writing is positioned in sociolinguistics by tackling a longstanding binary between speech and writing posited by the field (462-64).

To his critique of Smit’s and Dobrin’s calls for “a prospective future beyond, or following the end of, composition” (469), Horner adds responses to three efforts to supplement composition with what are presented as new or extended content: the call to reframe it as rhetoric, to expand coursework to include “multimodal” approaches, and to rename the field “writing studies” (469). Horner is concerned that these proposed responses to composition’s apparent need ignore the history in which these approaches have long been integral to composition; moreover, in his view, these proposals do not challenge the reductive views of composition that portray it as lacking: for Horner, the field must continue the difficult

efforts to retrieve what the hegemonic denies and to learn to recognize, in forms and practices we are predisposed to understand in limited ways, the accomplishment of more and other than what is claimed. (469)

Horner’s conclusion calls for a recognition of the value of what is seen by the dominant as inconsequential or useless, for example to recognize the learning that occurs even in small student gains. He endorses David Bartholomae’s exhortation to “pay attention to common things” (qtd. in Horner 472). His project resists the tendency to designate academic settings as “something from which students (and others) need protection” (472); on the contrary, he argues, the composition classroom offers a unique space where teachers and students can experiment precisely by exploring what the dominant is likely to see as beneath its notice (472-73). Rather than search for the new and the other, he contends, the field will be well served by recognizing its difference from standard academic disciplines and by re-examining constituent terms like “writing, pedagogy, theory, rhetoric, modality, and composition itself” (473; emphasis original).