James Collins, "The Culture Wars and Shifts in Linguistic Capital: For
Combining Political Economy and Cultural Analysis"

Comments by Bonnie Urciuoli, Hamilton College, Department of
Clinton NY 13323 (burciuol@hamilton.edu) 4/2/99

Collins' paper exemplifies a new area of investigation, which he is importantly responsible for: how specific instances of the institutionalization of higher education are embedded in processes of contemporary capitalism. In so far as anthropologists have paid attention to higher education as a sociocultural issue, they have focussed on representation of knowledge, a process affecting relatively few students, whereas what affects most students in most colleges-- the segmentation and stratification of academic product and student market-- has passed largely unremarked. Collins examines how processes of higher education (allegedly about the provision of class mobility) re-entrench ongoing class and racial stratification through differential distribution of cultural capital in a specific discursive site: composition classes.

Collins, building on Guillory, works from the premise that college composition courses have become the new production site for linguistic capital, discounting the literary context of writing and displacing the symbolic value of traditional liberal arts studies. This fits the "skills" discourses prominent in much college and university administrative discourse and recruiting literature, including what is categorized as "oral skills." In this discourse, "skills" are emphatically decontextualized from any specific subject matter (p.16), and are central to the rhetoric emphasizing the college/university role in production of a flexible work force. Collins' ethnography and analysis, based on classroom observation, student placement essays, and interviews with teachers in basic and regular composition programs, demonstrates the ways in which college composition courses, while supposedly providing the same linguistic capital to all comers, stratifies producers, consumers, and production process.

Let me talk about a few specific points. On p. 8, apropos Collins' discussion of composition teachers treated like post-fordist flexible labor force, one thing I know from my own work which may be true here and, if so, which is worth hearing more about, is this: despite heavy emphasis on writing skills, the actual SUBSTANCE of those skills is not all that clearly specified (I don't mean by Collins, I mean by the schools). Certain techniques for and ideologies about instilling certain privileged forms of language use do get specified (where I work, the magic phrase is "oral communication" building on an older "tradition" of public speaking), but as Collins points out, what actually happens in the classroom, despite the training sessions and centralized curriculum ends up to some extent worked out by specific teachers in specific classrooms. He also notes that one of his teacher-interviewees points out that "grammar and usage" was not explicitly given priority in the formal framework of this course, in the training workshops or curricular guidelines, yet they were an implicit concern in practice evaluation of student essays; thus she decided to emphasize it. This sets up an interesting paradox which, I admit, lies outside Collins' main focus, but is relevent and worth contemplating: the intense rhetoric of literacy and skill production surrounding programs which seem not to specify the content of those skills and literacy practices. Can such content be specified? Maybe not, and if not, that's even more interesting. On p.10, Collins examines a couple of syntactic features (non-restrictive relative clauses and nonstandard verb agreement) characteristic of written and spoken registers as diagnostics of linguistic capital. He notes how often these turn up in the placement essays by which students are tracked into basic and regular composition classes, and he speculates that evaluators focus on such syntax differences. But (I infer) evaluators themselves don't seem to specify their criteria systematically. He also comments (p.11) on differences in topic-focus strategies in test-taking, and on analytic writing, and then notes that one key difference is the difference in writing habitus from which regular and basic students come. That being the case, to go back to the question "can such content be specified," I would say, very likely not. Whatever students are doing that makes them good writers appears to come out of a complex, long-term, class-structured set of circumstances. (Regarding placement exams, it would be very interesting to know more about just what the evalators evaluate and how, though I know that such information may not be readily accessible.) One of Bourdieu's fundamental points about habitus is, it cannot be reduced to a set of rules. But Americans do love to privilege order and specification (i.e., rules)-- they certainly do love to do so in the hyper-technicized discursive fields of higher education administration. This obsession applies to the rhetoric of order (literacy, skills) even when the content is unclear and possibly unspecifiable and untestable.

Collins says (p.9) he does not have room to pursue the relation of curricular differences with differences in student linguistic capital but I hope this is something he follows up elsewhere. The linguistic/ethnographic specifics of such connections are really important. Texts are treated as though they provide a model, but what textual elements appear in student writing over the long haul? Do successful CEOs (contemporary models of success) really reproduce privileged text models? and if not, what is all this standing in for? On p. 11, Collins opens a comparative discussion of the relation of text to talk. I think this is where we really hit dirt, so to speak. In comparing interactional structures, we are struck by the linearity of the Regular class discussion (Q-A-Q-A, aligned on topic, no interruption, responding to the teacher and doing what she says) and the decentered, interactive nature of the Basic class discussion, where discussants branch the topics off into their directions of interest, respond to each other as much as to the teacher, and interrupt. Specifics of text-focus aside, if you're a big CEO, which of these sets of students are you likely to see as good flexible workers in your company?

Where could work like this go? Education as product is becoming a central issue in contemporary colleges and universities, as shown in Shumar's work (cited in Collins). Schools are driven to find places in the market and increasingly, educational administrators seem to operate under the premise that the most appropriate judges of the educational product-- which means, ultimately what drives its packaging-- are corporate CEOs. One college president conducted a survey showing that liberal arts education is valued by CEOs insofar as they see it as the site for production of a set of rather amorphously classified skills (see Hersh 1997). More and more, what corporations want, what pleases CEOs, seems to be the new arbiter of what higher education should produce as cultural capital: technical correctness and control, conformation with the company's interests. In many ways, these add up to a revised model of whiteness, though without the race label. In effect, anyone can fit this model if they work hard and train properly; it's up to the individual. Left out of account is the fact that different models are offered. Collins is dead right to focus on educational production processes affecting non-white students from working class backgrounds in large public universities. These are the students most concerned with class mobility; increasingly, these are the students who seek access to it through public universities, and through four-year and junior colleges in major cities. These are also the student populations most vulnerable to public criticism as somehow undeserving and substandard; see Lassalle and Pérez (1997) on the demonization by politicians and media of black and Latino working class students in the CUNY (City University of New York) system. Such work is consonant with a more general set of concerns: how major nation-building institutions recreate stratification under the guise of providing the means to equalize, where the rhetoric of presentation masks critical perception of processual specifics. Race and class are reproduced through differential production and distribution, especially where the market is captive. The curricular differences described by Collins on p.9 (the regular writing program students get rules and text models, the basic program students get a focus on writing process and use personal experience as models) reminds one of the way poorly made goods labeled with rough imitations of brand names, made in factories staffed by underpaid workers, mostly women and/or children, are distributed to outlets in poor areas, with little choice offered to consumers and probably overpriced. Unlike earlier race models, which did not mask how they reproduced hierarchy, these late-capitalist processes hide race-reproduction behind an egalitarian rhetoric: "everyone could all be equal; if people are not class mobile it their own fault." This seems to be the operative principle of race/class reproduction, whether of the workforce, of its education, or of the goods available to it.

One picky point, regarding the title: I'm not sure "culture wars" is all that salient here.

References Cited

Hersh, R.
1997 (March/April) Intentions and perceptions: A national survey of public attitudes toward liberal arts education. __Change__ pp. 16-23.
Lassalle, Y. and M. Pérez
1997 "Virtually" Puerto Rican: "Dis"-locating Puerto Rican-ness and
privileged sites of production. __Radical History Review__