College Composition Weekly: Summaries of research for college writing professionals

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Marotta, Calley. University Writing as White Property. CE, Jan. 2019. Posted 02/20/2019.

Marotta, Calley. “Who Has the Right to Write? Custodian Writing and White Property in the University.” College English 81.3 (2019): 163-82. Print.

Calley Marotta analyzes the ways that custodial workers at a “Midwestern, predominantly white, public university” (166) experience writing through their positions as support staff in a cultural institution in which writing is central. Stating that studies of people in such positions are rare (163), Marotta reports on observations and interviews from a “larger qualitative case study” (166) to make her case that in such settings, writing is “White property” with which the minority participants she studied have complex relationships (164).

Marotta states that 53% of the fifteen custodial workers at the university were Latino; the seven who took part in her study were Latino and male. All but one were first-generation immigrants (166). She drew on “feminist and critical race theory,” as well as “Latino/a critical theory” (165) to examine the workers as writers both in terms of their social interactions and the material aspects of writing, such as access to equipment and production of artifacts (167).

Her research addresses scholarship that views writing as having cultural and exchange value, thus coming to serve as “property” in power hierarchies (165). Marotta sees this property as “constructed as white” by “those who regulate writing” and its circulation within power configurations (165). She cites scholars such as John Trimbur and Jenny Cook-Gumperz to argue that safeguarding literacy is an ongoing function of “dominant castes” who attempt to block access for those not considered deserving (164).

Her study presents cases in which the Latino staff members find their access to and use of writing affected by what critical race theorist Sara Ahmed calls “institutional whiteness” (165) as manifested within a “writing-intensive” setting (164). Marotta argues that even though the workers are seen as outside the privilege associated with writing, they “are indeed workplace writers, because they write in, on, and for the institution as well as for themselves” (164).

Her research results in four categories of analysis: ways in which the workers and their writing were surveilled and “overwritten” as well as ways in which the workers used “writing back” to create agency in their positions and were positioned to “serve” through their writing (168).

To illustrate her category of surveillance, Marotta describes her observations of “Roberto,” a recent hire at the institution who had been in the United States since the age of seven (168). For Marotta, Roberto’s job as collector of discarded materials is that of protecting the writing that goes on in the privileged spaces of classrooms and offices (169). Roberto discusses his uncertainty over being allowed to use “public kiosks” for computer work during breaks even though, in a training session Marotta observed, workers were told they could use these resources (169).

Marotta recounts that in this training session, a “white, male, English-speaking facilitator” drew on an anecdote of a “custodian” using a professor’s office computer while the professor was “log[ged] in remotely” to remind employees that they were not authorized to use computers in private spaces like offices (169). In Marotta’s view, this kind of admonishment “cultivate[s] an atmosphere of danger circulating around custodial writing, and specifically, the use of university property to create it” (169). Within this atmosphere, Marotta writes, Roberto brings his brother’s laptop to work to study for his GED, thus “negotiating university property figured as white” in order to act as a writer (170).

“André” illustrates Marotta’s claim that workers’ products are “overwritten” as the white institution reasserts that writing is White property. A native-born U.S. citizen identifying as Puerto Rican who previously attended the university as an engineering major, André took time off to reconsider his goals and signed on as “lead worker on the custodial crew” because he had an unfulfilled student housing lease (171).

André reports on a scatological graffito scrawled on a notice about proper waste disposal he posted in a restroom. Acknowledging that the graffito may have been the kind of joking text common in restrooms, Marotta argues that for the writer of the scrawl, the “joke” was “the idea that custodians could make requests and even demands of those around them via writing” (171). Similarly, when a wallet disappeared, André believed that flyers instructing employees to ask “suspicious individuals” if they needed help led three different people to ask him such questions while he was posting official notices. Marotta argues that “this flyer functioned to metaphorically overwrite” André’s notices, thus, again, claiming writing for whiteness (172).

The case of “Henry” explores how, in Marotta’s view, employees are both subject to “demands” from the white institution and able to “make demands of [the institution’s] actors in ways that, for some, may be worth the risk” (175). A lipsticked note on a washroom mirror asked questions about maintenance that Henry saw as attacking his work. Moreover, he found that his professional background as a college-educated electrician during his life in Cuba was discounted due to what he considered racism (174). At the same time, despite his difficulties with English, Henry wrote on garbage containers to instruct faculty and staff where to correctly deposit trash (174-75). This act of “writ[ing]back,” for Marotta, both “made [Henry’s] job a little easier and asserted his presence in the university space” (175).

Marotta reports that custodians wrote notes when turning in found property and often received notes of appreciation in return, writing that, for Marotta, documents their value to the university (176). This aspect of “writing to serve” is further illustrated with her study of “Jesus,” whose friendliness and collegiality across the university class tiers earned him written testaments to his worth to the institution from both the university and an individual student (176-77). Jesus is shown using his own literacy abilities to make signs that further the university’s mission. According to Marotta, when custodians are able to “negotiate” the university’s limits on writing in such ways, their efforts

reflect how the difference between custodial writing that is institutionally resisted and accepted is the extent to which participants seem to be writing to serve students and staff. (177)

Marotta urges composition faculty and staff to address workplace writing of the sort she describes as an issue of access and of who counts as writers. This project “can play a role in exposing such structures of whiteness and shifting expectations about who writes and has the right to do so within university spaces” (178).


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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).