Reply to Bonnie Urciuoli’s review

James Collins

I want to thank the organizers of the Language and Culture list for inviting me to submit a symposium paper and Bonnie Urciuoli for her thoughtful and stimulating review.

This paper was originally prepared for an AAA session on “Late Capitalist Economies and Higher Education”. It involved cultural and linguistic anthropologists trying to think through such matters as the accelerating use of part-time labor and of market-oriented strategic planning for curriculum and recruitment. In thinking about session issues and a case study of academic composition programs, I was drawn to Russell Jacoby’s and John Guillory’s arguments that the debates about knowledge, culture, and identity that we know as “the culture wars” or “the canon wars” ignored economic stratification in higher education as well as the school’s role in social stratification more generally. This is too bluntly stated in the paper, not developed, as Bonnie notes, but it points to the need for theories and concepts which explore the relation between the cultural and the economic -- in the case at hand, the complex mediations between an economy of “flexibilized” production and the fragmenting and decentering of knowledge and identity that has been characteristic of the current era (at least in the affluent European and European-derived nations).

Whether we call it late modern, late capitalist, or postmodern, an important feature of the current era has been the ascendency of deregulatory dynamics, i.e. neoliberalism. In education, whether primary, secondary, or post-secondary, neoliberalism is associated with an emphasis on “skills”. I agree with Bonnie’s observation that despite the heavy emphasis in university writing programs, the actual substance of [writing] skills is not clearly specified. I agree further, regarding the case presented (as well as others), that “Whatever students are doing that makes them good writers appears to come out of a complex, long-term, class-structured set of circumstances.” What the symposium paper reports about differences in expectations for writing, about treatment of stigmatized dialect features, and interaction orientations to text or talk can be understood as aspects of “long-term, class-structured set(s) of circumstances”. That said, it remains that (a) “basic [ie. decontextualized] skills” is the dominant rhetoric of our neoliberal day; and (b) underneath the common institutional signifier, “writing skills”, we have differentiated knowledge, that is, statified practices and outcomes (in the case at hand, text-oriented vs. experience-oriented pedagogies; see also Nespor (1985) [cited in symposium text]).

On the issue of curriculum differences and their interaction with differences in linguistic capital, which the symposium paper mentions briefy (p. 9), what was striking was that the Regular pedagogy was explicit -- the textbooks was a reader of academic and literary essays, the teacher used the essays in the class, and the students oriented to them; conversely, in the Basic classroom pedagogy was implicit -- the textbook contained fragments of essays and other short texts, the teacher abandoned the text, and the students did not orient to it. This contrast was consistent with Bernstein’s (1975) analysis of “visible” and “invisible” pedagogies and social class, including the prediction of the greater difficulty working-class students would have with an under- problematized implicit pedagogy (for further treatment of this issue, Collins, 1993b “The troubled text” [full citations for Bernstein and Collins in symposium paper]). Concerning text- oriented curricula, Bonnie rightly questions whether “[such] textual elements appear in student writing over the long haul” or in the writing of “sucessful CEOs”. Quite possibly not, for it is in principle an open question how the symbolic capital of the school translates into other resources (that is the thrust of the discussion of “conversion strategies” in Bourdieu’s Distinction, which usefully foregrounds the historicity of ‘forms of capital’). This granted, I think that text-grounded writing is still a preferred feature of academic composition; it is the basic rhetoric/skill of the scholastic writing, whatever its economic fate and ability to bind allegiances/identities.

Bonnie’s comments on “[w]here could work like this go” raise a host of important issues, perhaps most salient for me the question of “how major nation-building institutions recreate [race-and-class] stratification under the guise of providing the means to equalize, where the rhetoric of presentation masks critical perception of processual specifics”. The first clause reminds us of the fertility of Gramsci’s problematic of hegemony and culture production; the second clause suggests the utility of linguistic anthropology as applied linguistics, carrying on a project of social critique, ferreting out the “processual specifics” that lead elsewhere than the “rhetoric of presentation”.

There is more to say, but let me stop here, thanking Bonnie for her review, and the Language- Culture list for the chance to learn from this electronic exchange.