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Daniel, James Rushing. Student Debt and Composition Classes. CCC, Dec. 2018. Posted 01/30/2019.

Daniel, James Rushing. “‘A Debt Is Just the Perversion of a Promise’: Composition and the Student Loan.” College Composition and Communication 70.2 (2018): 195-221. Print.

James Rushing Daniel addresses “debt” as a pervasive force in current culture and in the lives of students in writing classes. He argues that a course based in the study of debt’s history and effects is a useful and pedagogically appropriate composition option.

Daniel presents statistics illustrating the increasing financial pressure associated with a college education, in particular the influence of the student-loan industry. For example, in the early 1990s, 51% of students graduated with debt averaging $10,200, while in 2012, 71% owed loans averaging $29,400. Time to repayment has risen from 10 years to 19.7 years (196).

In Daniel’s view, this phenomenon is part of a larger component of the neoliberal “fast capitalist economy” discussed by Tony Scott in Dangerous Writing: Understanding the Political Economy of Composition (199). Daniel writes that debt, in such theories, is “an ideological apparatus with significant bearing on the agency of subjects in contemporary global society” (197). As such, it drives choices of educational environment and direction, career, and life events such as marriage or home-owning (197, 215). Debt also carries moral weight that further reduces citizens’ abilities to resist the pressures of neoliberal culture (201). Moreover, it forces students to view education “increasingly . . . through an economic framework” (198). Daniel sees debt as a ubiquitous and pervasive element students will face in college and beyond.

To Daniel, composition scholars and the academy in general have failed to properly attend to debt as a component of students’ lives (215). He cites robust efforts to retain students that ignore these students’ financial burdens and thus actually exacerbate the conditions that drive many students to leave college without completing their degrees (201). While, for Daniel, scholars like Marc Bousquet, Chase Bollig, and Pegeen Reichert Powell address debt as a factor in the political economy of writing classrooms, with some exceptions such theorists tend to “gloss its enduring effects while overstating composition’s capacity to prepare students to navigate it” (201). He quotes Bollig, for example, as arguing that a critically active writing class can help students “resist and thrive” in the face of capitalist exigencies (qtd. in Daniel 201).

The author cites scholars from varied fields, such as anthropology, sociology, and philosophy as well as literary studies to enlarge his discussion of debt. Among insights gleaned from those fields is a critique of “debt’s most disempowering aspect,” which is “its narrative of impermanence” (204). Accepting that most people will be “in debt forever,” in this reading, means disabling the illusion that any debt is a “temporary financial transaction” on the path toward an affluent, entrepreneurial future, replacing it with a more accurate awareness of the function of debt in fast capitalism (205).

Daniel asks compositionists to recognize how writing programs are “necessarily entwined with the problem of student debt” and to consider the costs that students ultimately pay to join a college writing class (202). He presents his own intervention, a course designed to introduce students to the ways debt functions in neoliberal society. He contends that this course stops short of promising to free students from debt’s powerful influence. Rather, he hopes that by bringing the issue of debt to the foreground, the course can provide students with a deeper awareness that may lead to more informed choices and one day inspire them to “strive for financial justice in public contexts” in whatever ways they feel are open to them (203).

Suggesting the first-year students will need more scaffolding than students taking the course in later semesters (206), Daniel responds to several potential critiques of his course plan. To the concern that the topic may be too narrow, Daniel responds that because of its influence in all aspects of current life, the topic of debt speaks to the field’s goal of making coursework meaningful to all students (207). While Daniel notes that some students may find the topic irrelevant if they haven’t borrowed to attend college, or if they have already made debt commitments they can’t change, he points out that many may need to borrow later and will benefit from the broader awareness that can inform future decisions (207-08). Some students, he argues, may be reluctant to share personal information, but this resistance can be addressed with work on personal writing as part of a composition curriculum (207).

He responds as well to concerns that a focus on a single topic may not teach the more general competences that have been defined as the field’s obligation to students (213). Drawing on the scholarship of Patricia Bizzell and others, Daniel argues that “taking up social issues and viewing them rhetorically” aligns with compositionists’ goal of creating writers who are critically aware of the power of writing as social action and able to engage in public discourse effectively (213-14).

The course Daniel introduces begins with an introduction to basic economic concepts, then moves to personal writing that encourages students to situate themselves in the matrix of capitalist economics by sharing their experiences of the financial system (208-10). A third unit may involve rhetorical analysis of financial documents and advertisements so that students can assess how debt is presented as impermanent and empowering when it may be a more complex factor in students’ lives (211-12). As a final focus, the course examines possible ways of negotiating or resisting common narratives about and normalized interactions with debt to present “models and opportunities for activism that could be emulated if students so desired” (213). He provides readings, assignments, and examples of student work.

In Daniel’s view, it may not be possible for students to “resist” and “thrive” simultaneously (214). He reiterates that writing professionals should temper their expectations that critical awareness can free students from capitalist exigencies. He encourages the “short term” goal of “present[ing] students with more agentive modes of thinking and acting in the context of neoliberalism while being clear that there are no panacea” (214). To this end, he urges writing studies to respond to his claim that the field “has largely failed to acknowledge debt’s vast material and ideological function” (215).

In particular, he notes, future research should address how debt as a necessary adjunct to education affects how students understand and value the writing they find themselves viewing “through a financial lens” (216). By correcting its neglect, he claims, the field can address the degree to which debt as a permanent reality in capitalist culture has endangered “the fundamental connection between education and democracy” (215).


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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).