Thursday, March 31, 2016

Foucault, On Writing (Excerpt)

Claude Bonnefoy: How do you experience the activity of writing?

Michel Foucault: When I write, I always have something in mind. At the same time, I always address something that’s outside myself, an object, a domain that can be described, grammar or seventeenth-century political economy, or the experience of madness throughout the classical period. And yet, that object, that domain, I don’t get the impression that I’m describing it at all, of placing myself in a position of receptivity to what it says, of translating with words on paper and with a certain style a certain representation I’ve created of what I’m trying to describe.

Earlier, I said that I’m trying to reveal the distance I have, that we have to these things; my writing is the discovery of that distance. I’d add that, in one sense, my head is empty when I begin to write, even though my mind is always directed toward a specific object. Obviously, that means that, for me, writing is an exhausting activity, very difficult, filled with anxiety. I’m always afraid of messing up; naturally, I mess up, I fail all the time. This means that what encourages me to write isn’t so much the discovery or certainty of a certain relationship, of a certain truth, but rather the feeling I have of a certain kind of writing, a certain mode of operation of my writing, a certain style that will bring that distance into focus.

For example, one day in Madrid, I had been fascinated by Velázquez’s Las Meninas. I’d been looking at the painting for a long time, just like that, without thinking about talking about it someday, much less of describing it—which at the time would have seemed derisive and ridiculous. And then one day, I don’t recall how, without having looked at it since, without even having looked at a reproduction, I had this urge to write about the painting from memory, to describe what was in it. As soon as I tried to describe it, a certain coloration of language, a certain rhythm, a certain form of analysis, especially, gave me the impression, the near certainty—false, perhaps—that I had found exactly the right language by which the distance between ourselves and the classical philosophy of representation and classical ideas of order and resemblance could come into focus and be evaluated. That’s how I began to write The Order of Things. For that book I used material I had gathered in the preceding years almost at random, without knowing what I would do with it, with no certainty about the possibility of ever writing an essay. In a way it was like examining a kind of inert material, an abandoned garden of some sort, an unusable expanse, which I surveyed the way I imagine the sculptor of old, the sculptor of the seventeenth or eighteenth century, might contemplate, might touch the block of marble he didn’t yet know what to do with.

Excerpt from: Michel Foucault, Speech Begins after Death, In Conversation with Claude Bonnefoy, ed. by Philippe Artières and trans. by Robert Bononno (Minnesota: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2013), pp. 78-81.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Diversity is Not Enough (Harvard's Concealed Theology)

By Tenzan Eaghll

Did you catch the article that was making the rounds on Facebook last month about a new free online course on religion being offered by Harvard's Divinity School? The course seeks to improve tolerance and understanding about religion by improving religious literacy. Titled "Religious Literacy: Traditions and Scriptures," the course includes six classes on different topics and will be followed by more specific courses on Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism.

Although the course pretends to be theoretically innovative, it is actually just a repackaging of the old "seven dimensions" model established by Ninian Smart. For starters, the website states that, "The study of religion is the study of a rich and fascinating dimension of human experience that includes but goes well beyond beliefs and ritual practices."  Just like Smart, who identified religion as a unique aspect of human experience and claimed that it has various social dimensions that can be studied cross-culturally, the course designers at Harvard have provided an empirical basis for studying non-empirical phenomena. They have preserved the confessional approach to religious education in a scientific language.

The core objectives of the course are to teach learners that (1) religions are internally diverse, (2) how they evolve and change through time, and (3) how religions are embedded in all dimensions of human experience. It is important to note how they never actually interrogate the meaning of  "religion, " but merely pass the buck, so to speak, and suggest that religion is produced by a series of dimensions that are defined as religious. Here is the YouTube advertisement for the course:

Notice how they simultaneously suggest that religions do not function in isolation from their political, economic, and cultural contexts,  yet still claim that it is impossible to understand a culture without considering its religious dimensions? This classic phenomenological move attempts to define religion by mundane acts like belief and ritual practice, while simultaneously isolating something that goes well beyond them. 

Of course, by incorporating the social and material elements into their definition of religion, courses like this are certainly an improvement upon a purely theological analysis of the subject, but by failing to submit the category itself to analysis they continue to present religion as sui generis. After all, if "religion and culture" are inseparable, how are they able to refer to religion as something unique that exceeds the limits of human practice?

I would suggest that this attempt to contextualize religion while also preserving its unique qualities is a value laden approach to the subject that does not help us to the understand the complexity of the world we live in, but merely functions as a theological tool to separate religion from other aspects of culture. In the vein of Smart, what the course designers at Harvard seek to create is a "federalism of tolerance" by concealing a theological agenda in a secular guise. The idea that religion is a unique phenomenon distinct from other aspects of culture, such as music or philosophy, is a theological claim that prioritizes religious experience. Simply diversifying the forms of religion and its plurality in history does not correct the misunderstanding about religion. Diversity is not enough. 

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Ten Theses In Support of Teaching and Against Learning Outcomes

*This post originally appeared in Jeff Noonan: Interventions and Evocations

1. Teaching at the university level is not a practice of communicating or transferring information but awakening in students a desire to think by revealing to them the questionability of things. The desire to think is awakened in students if the teacher is able to reveal the importance of the discipline as a way of exposing to question established “solutions” to fundamental problems of human experience, thought, activity, relationship, and organization. Teaching does not instruct or transmit information, it embodies and exemplifies the commitment to thinking.

2. True teaching is thus a practice, a performance of cognitive freedom which awakens in students a sense of their own cognitive freedom. Both are rooted in the most remarkable power of the brain: not to simulate, not to sense, not to tabulate, not to infer, but to co-constitute the objective world of which it is an active part. In thinking we do not just passively register the world, we transform it by making it the object of thought, i.e, an object that can be questioned and changed.  To think is thus to cancel the alien objectivity of the world and to become a subject, an active force helping to shape the order of things.

3. All successful teaching therefore results in students who love to think and never stop thinking for the rest of their lives. This result is very different from mastering a certain body of knowledge or learning to apply certain rules to well-defined situations. To love to think is identical to feel and be moved by the need to question: the given structure of knowledge in the discipline, its application to the problem-domain of human life that the discipline ranges over, the overarching structures of human social life within which the discipline or subject matter has its place, and the overall problems of life as a mortal, finite being. To love to think means to remain alive to the questionability of things in all these domains.

4. Thus, the person who loves to think is critically minded. The critically minded person is not an undisciplined skeptic, but one who can detect contradictions between principle and practice, and between principles and the values to which they purportedly lead as means. Critical thinking is not the ability to solve problems within the established parameters of social, economic, political, aesthetic, and intellectual-scientific life. Change is impossible if all that people can do is apply the given rules mindlessly. If the problem lies with the established rules (and fundamental problems in any field always concern the established rules), then confining critical thinking to “problem solving” always serves the status quo (i.e., repeats the cause of the problem as the solution).

5. Every class in which the love of thinking is cultivated must be a class in which the interaction between teacher and students lives through the collective effort to open to question a purportedly settled issue, to see how these solutions came to be, what alternatives they excluded, and what alternatives might be better (as well as what constitutes a “better” solution).  Of course, learning to love to think is always developed in relation to a specific subject-matter and definite methodologies. However, these elements of learning are always means to the real end: awakening and cultivating the love of thinking. Learning outcomes confuse the ends (thinking) with the means (content and skills) and set out to measure how well the students are mastering the content and the methods.

6. Learning outcomes are justified as proof of a new concern within the university with the quality of teaching and student learning. In reality, they are part of a conservative drift in higher education towards skill-programming and away from cultivation of cognitive freedom and love of thinking.  Ironically, the passive, consumeristic attitude that learning outcomes encourage in students works against students becoming motivated to learn even the skills and the information that the learning outcomes prioritize.

7. While they are often sold to faculty as means to improve teaching and better serve the interests of students, what they in fact achieve is a narrowing of the scope and aims of classroom interaction to skilling and information transfer. (See further, Furedi, Frank. (2012). “The Unhappiness Principle,” Times Literary Supplement, November 29th, 2012; Stefan Collini, Who Are the Spongers Now? London Review of Books, Vol. 38, No.2, January 21, 2016). Skills and information acquisition (that which the learning outcomes try to specify and enforce) are not, however, ends, but only means of opening up the discipline (and the world) to question. Nothing will kill student engagement faster than drilling them on information or skills. The really valuable learning happens when the dialectic of question and answer, problem, provisional solution, and then deeper problem excites students sufficiently that they start to want to follow the emergent thread of ideas wherever it leads, because they start to feel themselves actively contributing to that direction.

8. As metrics, they are either redundant (doing nothing but state the obvious, i.e., that a class on Greek philosophy will cover Greek philosophy, and a class that involves essay writing will enable students to learn how to write essays), or useless (if what they aim to measure is something like love of thinking, which is an inner disposition and not subject to quantitative measure). In their belief that only that which measurable is real, defenders of learning outcomes show themselves to be another example of a society-wide cognitive derangement that confuses the value of practices and relationships and activities with their measurable aspects (the “externalist fallacy,” John McMurtry, “What Is Good, What is Bad, The Value of All Values Across Time, Places, and Theories,” Philosophy and World Problems, Volume 1, EOLSS Publishers, 2011, p. 269).

9. That which can be measured is “customer satisfaction.” Even if they are never explicitly justified in these terms, it is clear that when thought within the context of society-wide changes to public institutions and attacks on public sector workers (which include professors in Canada), learning outcomes presuppose and reinforce a consumeristic attitude towards education. They present the purpose of pursuing a course of study as the purchase of a defined set of skills and circumscribed body of information which can then be used as a marketing pitch to future employers. Learning outcomes submerge the love of thinking in bureaucratic objectification of the learner as a customer, a passive recipient of closed and pre-packaged material.

 10. Hence, there is no clear pedagogical value to learning outcomes. If there is no pedagogical value how are we to understand the current fad? As part of the attack on the professional autonomy of professors because it constitutes a barrier to the imposition of market discipline on universities. (See, for example, Jonker, Linda, and Hicks, Martin. (2014). Teaching Loads and Research Outputs of Ontario University Faculty Members: Implications for Productivity and Differentiation. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario;  Commission on the Reform of Ontario’s Public Services (2012). “Post-secondary Education,” Deem, Rosemary, Hilyard, Sam, Reed, Mike. (2007). Knowledge, Higher Education, and the New Mangerialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Bruneau, William. (2000). “Shall We Perform or Shall We Be Free? The Corporate Campus: Commercialization and the Dangers To Canada’s Colleges and Universities. James L. Turk, ed., Toronto: Lorimer; Massy, William F, and Zemsky, Robert. “Using Information Technology to Enhance Academic Productivity.” If professors are allowed to define their own terms of work (legitimated by appeal to academic freedom and professional autonomy) they escape the discipline of market forces to which other workers are subjected. This allows them to extract rents in the form of higher wages, and it also constitutes a barrier to “higher productivity” (more graduates produced per unit input of academic labour). Learning outcomes are only one aspect of this broader political-economic assault on academic labour, but the motivation behind them—whatever their institutional supporters might say—cannot be understood outside of this context.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Learning Curve: Reflections on Early Career Teaching

*This post is part of a series in which professors reflect on the practical lessons they have learned in the transition from graduate school to employment.

I was fortunate to receive many opportunities to teach as a graduate student at the University of Toronto, so that when I went on the job market, I didn’t have to write my teaching statements on the basis of what I would do but rather on what I had done. In fact, I suspect that what set me apart among many other applicants for position was my diverse teaching experiences. In brief, I’ve been teaching since 2011 at four different universities and colleges; two have been public universities in the United States, one a public university in Canada, and one a private liberal arts college in the United States. I’ve guest-lectured in classes at a variety of other institutions. My research specialization is in early Christianity, but like most professors, I’ve also taught more general courses such as Judaism, Christianity, & Islam and Introduction to Religious Studies. My observations about early career teaching for this blog post are thus drawn from a range of students, courses, administrative settings, and campus climates.

My first observation after these few years is that students really want a professor who is an expert in their field. It’s 2016; my students know how to use Wikipedia if they want to get the basics on a topic. What they want in a professor is someone who is trained to assess the information they encounter in such sources and who can help them understand where it comes from. They want, for instance, someone to help them evaluate the recent blog post about religion that they read on CNN. They want someone who can take one look at a website they have been consulting and observe, “This is run by an evangelical group which explains why they evince beliefs X, Y, and Z.” They want someone who, when asked where the New Testament comes from, will tell them immediately that the earliest list of the 27 canonical books comes from a guy called Athanasius in the year 367 C.E. They want you for your expertise. This is often a challenge to remember, because the job market will try to generalize you. Most institutions are hiring you not to teach the one highly specialized course that fits perfectly with your dissertation topic, but also to teach introductory classes in a broader core humanities curriculum. These are crucially important courses to have, of course, but students and their parents are hoping for experts and for the immediacy of expert knowledge in the classroom.

We all acknowledge that humanities professors should instill oft-lauded “critical thinking” in our students. My sense from job interviews is that people on search committees hear this platitude all the time—“I encourage critical thinking in my classes”—and they’d rather hear what you’re really going to do in order to help students acquire these skills. This is certainly one of my goals when teaching students to read ancient texts in my courses. I encourage them to ask whose perspective the text is framed from, why such a text might be written, whom it benefits, etc. But students also need the specialized historical, sociological, political, and other data to make for the strongest analysis. Let me illustrate. Consider the Book of Daniel. When I encourage my students to “think critically” about such a text, we ask above all about its presentation: what argument is the text making? Whose interests are served by such a text? What is the purpose of such a text?In theory, students can do this kind of analysis in an intellectual vacuum, and it’s probably a valuable exercise to muse about such nebulous questions. But in reality, the best teachers are going to be those who provide them with the data to make solid conclusions with their critical thinking skills. In this case, the Book of Daniel can be made sense of by realizing that it was clearly written under the rule of Greek kings who succeeded Alexander the Great and notably not during the Babylonian Exile when it claims to have been penned. As many will know, you can come to this conclusion about the Book of Daniel if you have a strong background in ancient Near Eastern history. Armed with that, students are now in a position to contribute to the production and assessment of knowledge, not just “ask questions” à la Glenn Beck or some other talking head. This ensures that “critical thinking” doesn’t just operate in an ill-defined space but rather can be focused and honed in a constructive way. Upon reflection, it is thus our expertise that makes the classroom a disciplined place.

Expertise in our areas of study makes it so that when a job advertisement is posted for someone in, for instance, Christian Origins, any random person with reasonable analytical skills is not able to get an interview. Many people already have trouble imagining Religious Studies scholars as specialists—as evidenced by some of my colleagues who have served on search committees and have been the recipients of applications by interested lay people who think they would like to take a stab at teaching a religion course. So, while “critical thinking” is a great skill for us to have and for us to impart to our students, it is not an end in and of itself. It is a skill set that we cultivate and apply to our area of expertise—which, for most of us, requires historical background, critical theory, language study, and the like.

But our expertise in content should not dominate the classroom, which brings me to my second realization about early career teaching: students are not always bringing the technical skills to our classes that we might have hoped—through no fault of their own. We thus have to pick up the slack in many of our courses, even though we are theoretically only responsible for covering a certain content area. One of the best tactics that I’ve incorporated into my courses this year are narrowly focused assignments to help develop certain technical writing skills. That is, I structure my courses to build in skills, not just content. For instance, in my Ancient Christian Gospels course, I’ve set assigned four days to do writing workshops. The students range from freshmen to seniors; some are great at writing, while some still need work. I’ve decided that I can sacrifice a few days of content to focus on such tasks as how to summarize ancient texts, how to use ancient texts for an argument, and how to compare ancient texts with respect to a wider analytical theme. These routine skills that I and others in my field take for granted are completely foreign for some students, and I think it’s important to take the time to explain how to approach such tasks in the most basic way. For those familiar with it, it’s old hat and amounts to an easy A. For those unfamiliar, it might be one of the only focused times to develop such skills in their college experience.

Arguably, the most important thing I’ve learned is that the ethos of the college or university that you’re teaching in determines what you can do in the classroom, and this is mostly out of your control. For instance, I encountered some exceptionally bright students at the University of Toronto, yet they were among ~85,000 other undergraduates who found their ways into Religious Studies courses. I’d have about 40 students in each class, and those who showed up were routinely prepared and interested. I didn’t have an attendance policy, because my students are adults who are juggling work, other courses, sometimes families—and their Religious Studies course might not be their top priority. That’s fine. But it means that I couldn’t count on having all 40 people at each class, which determined how I covered the material and engaged with students. Now at Rhodes College (a private, residential liberal arts college), the ethos is very different. My courses are capped at 18 students. I can count on almost all students attending classes regularly and being prepared (and when they’re absent, they frequently send detailed and apologetic emails explaining their absence). Group work—which I rarely did before coming to Rhodes—is always productive in the classroom. One campus climate is not necessarily better than the other. There’s something to be said for an in-depth lecture that’s chock full of information and given by a specialist at a research-intensive university, but there’s also value in smaller, face-to-face, organic exploration of the material. Some of the best advice for folks on the job market is thus to really understand the differences among various institutions to which they apply and know how to adapt teaching styles appropriately.

Finally, what I’ve also discovered is that my students are really interesting young people, especially when they want to be at college and they are truly excited to learn (as opposed to being present to get this or that credential to get a good job one day). They do cool stuff and have innovative ideas—whether they know it or not. This has encouraged me to have a more dynamic relationship with my students. Instead of having a rigid sense of all the material that I have to cover every semester, I tweak my classes based on how students—whose opinions I greatly respect—react. I ask them which topics have made the most (or the least) sense to them and what sorts of assessments they find the most useful. Granted, I don’t let them run the show, but because they are, on the whole, dedicated and insightful people, their feedback goes a long way in helping me develop my courses and be a more effective teacher.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Interview with the Author: Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power

                                                       Link to book excerpt

Interview with Donovan Schaefer

What is the main argument in this book?

There’s an implicit bias in the humanities toward seeing human beings as primarily driven by the grid of their thoughts. My suggestion is that we need to replace this with a more interactionist picture that sees thoughts as embedded in our bodies. And more specifically, we need to think of bodies as guided by networks of affect as the sources of actions, thoughts, and values. The project of the book is to bring Michel Foucault’s “analytics of power” into direct conversation with affect theory, showing how the landscape of affects is one and the same as the landscape of power. This is what I call the animality of affect—the way that we’re moved by forces that precede language.

I was at a seminar a few months ago where we started talking about the category of charisma and, through the mystical alchemy of academic conversations, got onto the subject of the charisma of babies. We were discussing why it is that people find infants so fascinating and compelling. One of the participants said “People love babies because they represent the future.” That’s what the book pushes back on. Concepts are part of the tissue of forces that produce our actions, beliefs, and desires, but they aren’t fundamental. Rather a grid of cognitively arranged conceptual propositions, the pushes and pulls of power are more animal, shaped by affects before ideas.

What motivated your work?

I was reading a lot of affect theory and trying to find threads that would tie it together. I was also reading evolutionary theory and working on new approaches to thinking about animality from within the humanities using those resources. I realized that the two projects could be knitted together around the motif of power. At the same time, I was thinking about Elizabeth Grosz’s reading of Darwin as a figure who could transform scholarship in the humanities not by simplifying it—by boiling it down to a few mathematical principles, as sociobiology tried to do—but by complexifying it. For Grosz, this is consonant with the project of thinking past the human exceptionalism that structures the classical humanities. Human exceptionalism is a holdover from a pre-Darwinian, Enlightenment understanding of the world that leads to misguided models of subjectivity. While leaving room for a thick description of human difference, one of the arguments of the book is that affect theory is a way of locating human bodies on a Darwinian continuum of animal species. It then explores the implications of this positioning for religious studies and cultural studies.

What theory or theorists inform your method and methodology?

Foucault and Donna Haraway are the major background figures on the pure theory side, and J.Z. Smith, Manuel Vásquez, and Aaron S. Gross on the religion side, but the book itself is mostly about telling the story of affect theory in a new way. Within affect theory there’s a divide between two (maybe more) perspectives, which draw on some of the same conceptual resources but push them in different directions. One of the branches is very heavily influenced by Deleuze and tends to have a lot of currency in media theory and poststructuralist philosophy. The other is what Sara Ahmed calls “feminist cultural studies of affect” and is more prominent in postcolonial, queer, and feminist scholarship. 

In the book I relabel them the Deleuzian and phenomenological branches. The Deleuzian branch tends to see affect as a sort of principle of non-structure that is the condition of possibility of experience, but not something you can actually “feel.” The phenomenological branch is more comfortable with the idea that affects have a “shape”—what Eugenie Brinkema would call the “forms of the affects”—and that they enter into the stream of experience. I think that they both have insights to offer the conversation, but the book leans toward the conclusion that to map power in its specificity, we need to move beyond the pure Deleuzian approach and recognize that affects shape bodies in different ways at different times and places. So this brings the book closer to theorists like Eve Sedgwick, Sara Ahmed, Ann Cvetkovich, José Muñoz, Kathleen Stewart, Sharon Holland, Lauren Berlant, and Jonathan Flatley.

How might the book be used or how has it been used in a classroom?

From what I’ve heard so far, it’s being used in three main settings: in cultural studies classrooms, in theory and method in the study of religion classrooms, and in animal studies classrooms. Those lines reflect the conversations the book sets out to interact with. I think the first chapter is a good, versatile introduction to affect theory and the analytics of power, and the rest of the book develops some themes within affect theory by drawing out three analytical tools—intransigence, compulsion, and accident. At the same time, it makes an intervention in religious studies, pushing past the linguistic turn and trying to reconsider strands of the RS genealogy in the light of affect theory and the analytics of power. Finally, it adds to a conversation happening right now in animal studies that has been advanced by scholars like Kari Weil, Elizabeth Grosz, Donna Haraway, Jacques Derrida, and Cary Wolfe, which is to explore how an attention to animals compels us to reconsider the framework of the humanities.

Your book has a chapter on pedagogy, a sort of meta-reflection for a class you taught on film. Can you offer any additional thoughts on that chapter? How does it contribute to the book?

Sure. That chapter is about my Religion, Emotion, and Global Cinema class that I taught at Haverford College during my postdoc there, and about the reading of the film Jesus Camp that emerged out of the class discussions. In thinking pedagogy through affect theory, it follows a trail blazed by scholars like Gayatri Spivak, Gail Hamner, Sara Ahmed, Lauren Berlant, and Megan Watkins. In the context of this book, I’m arguing that pedagogy can be understood as a circulation of affects. This is true in the classroom, where information exchange needs to be set against the backdrop of the system of affects that configures how that information resonates with bodies. Simply put, it’s the reason why we have teachers rather than just textbooks. It’s the Good Will Hunting question: Why not just get a library card? It’s because the teacher’s body, as a channel for the affects flowing around words and concepts, makes learning much, much easier for bodies. Teachers curate a field of information by organizing it affectively, training students in what’s interesting and what’s boring, how to sequence ideas for impact, how to probe their own uncertainties and confusions, and how to combine ideas to produce novelty. Because pedagogy shapes subjectivity at levels that exceed the strictly cognitive, I argue, we need to think of it as challenging the binary of public reason and private feelings.

How do you think students would most benefit from your book?

By using it as a jumping-off point for exploring ways to think about power differently. There’s a growing sense in the academic humanities that we need to move beyond the linguistic turn and describe power as something that always necessarily interlaces with bodies and affects rather than just words and minds. But I’d also say that it’s more than an academic exercise. Looking past the conventional wisdom that human beings are driven by grids of reason (or assuming that what gets called “reason” is always a good thing), attuning yourself to the forces that actually move us, has implications for media, journalism, activism, culture, religion, politics, or whatever else you’re doing where you need to understand humans in all their complexity.

Many thanks for sitting down with Practicum for this interview!

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Interview with the Author: Working in Class: Recognizing How Social Class Shapes Our Academic Work

Interview with Sandi Nenga 

What is the main argument in this book?
Working in Class is an interdisciplinary edited volume of essays by cutting-edge scholars of social class.  We asked the authors to use their scholarly expertise to make sense of one aspect of their work in the academy—either scholarship, teaching or academic working conditions.  The overarching argument that connects all 13 essays is that social class shapes every aspect of colleges and universities today, and that we can draw upon our scholarly expertise to identify, resist and disrupt the subtle mechanisms reproducing social class inequalities in the academy.
What motivated your work?
I like to think of Working in Class as the intellectual grandchild of Ryan and Sackrey’s (1984) edited volume, Strangers in Paradise.  Ryan and Sackrey’s collection of autobiographical essays written by working-class academics made the workings of social class in the academy visible.  A handful of other autobiographical collections followed, including Tokarczyk and Fay’s 1993 Working-Class Women in the Academy:  Laborers in the Knowledge Factory, and Dews and Law’s 1995 This Fine Place So Far From Home:  Voices of Academics from the Working Class. The autobiographical essay was an incredibly important and useful way for scholars to generate analytical insights about social class, especially in academic disciplines with a paucity of research on social class.  By 2013, when Allison Hurst and I started this project, there were a growing number of  scholars using conventional methods to investigate social class and it seemed as if we could go beyond using only autobiography as a way to generate new insights about social class in the academy.  We asked the contributors to Working in Class to place their individual class biographies, their autobiographical experiences of working in higher education, and the research literature on social class into conversation.
What theory or theorists inform your method and methodology?
Many of the contributors in Working in Class draw upon Pierre Bourdieu’s theorizing about the habitus and cultural capital.  The fact that so many of our contributors draw upon Bourdieu is, I think, a testament to how powerfully his ideas reveal the mechanisms by which social class is reproduced.  I would also argue that the goal of our project—to place the individual’s experiences in the academy within a broader context—pays homage both to C. Wright Mills’ idea of the sociological imagination and the feminist idea that “the personal is political.”

How might the book be used or how has it been used in a classroom?

Working in Class could be used by professors who want to add social class to discussions of diversity and try to highlight the ways that people from different class backgrounds might experience the shared space of the university in different ways.  Essays from Working in Class could also be used as exemplars of how to apply Bourdieuian theory.  Finally, professors who want to encourage their students to try blending autobiographical writing with a literature review and/or analytical writing might find the essays in Working in Class to be useful examples of interdisciplinary writing.

How do you think students would most benefit from your book?

I write in the book that “…as so often happens, messages about social class are buried in the substrata of a conversation.  Statements about social class seem to erupt from the ground up in vague, emotionally encrypted statements…”  Social class dynamics are often difficult to identify because we rarely link the word “social class” to  miscommunications, microaggressions, and institutionalized systems of privilege and oppression.  Reading Working in Class can help students to recognize, name and hopefully resist the reproduction of social class inequalities.

Many thanks for sitting down with Practicum for this interview!