“Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly”
– Frida Kahlo
“If you have no critics you’ll likely have no success.”
– Malcolm X
Fear and Loathing at Chico State (draft)
In the Western imagination we seem to have a fetish for dividing the world’s history into a series of well defined goal-posts. In elementary school growing up I studied civil-rights with my class and the way it was presented, the textbooks made it seem like there was a problem, a group of people got together in a very cordial kind of way (revolution was an abstraction without any real meaning or weight), and the things people wanted, their rights or perhaps objects, were achieved shortly after identification and remain fixtures in modern society to this day. From what I understand about businesses, across the country the upper echelons of top organizations lay out sets of quarterly goals, and whether or not a firm is perceived as successful is often dependent upon reaching those goals in some kind of quantifiable way.
This fetish exists in American pop culture as well. For artists the quality of an individual might be defined by publication or gallery time; for musicians, record and ticket-sales; for filmmakers whether or not they’re holding that little golden statue at the end of the year. Goal-posts, ‘victories,’ and the trophies by which we commemorate achievement become the metric by which we as Western-born thinkers begin to define and categorize our world, and if this fetish exists ubiquitously through all levels of American Society (to varying degrees) then is it so hard to imagine goal-posts, objectives, and end-goals constituting one of the ways by which we quantify and measure writing?
As I journey down this Literacy studies rabbit-hole one quote still calls out to me. It is a simple statement, but it exposes a philosophy in Western thought that perhaps underpins every instance of insane-frustration I, and others like myself have felt, while struggling with the written word inside and out of the institution of Big Education.
…people tend to experience writing as a finished product that represents ideas in seemingly rigid forms but also…writing is often seen as a ‘basic skill’ that a person can learn once and for all and not think about again (Wardle and Adler-Kassner 15).
I think about that time I was standing in the kitchen of a two bedroom apartment trading rhetorical blows with a smug asshole who thought he could make a punchline of my liberal arts degree by saying something along the lines of, “Yeah but you can already read, so why waste your time?” He saw my world and my interests as “throwing money at some ambiguous ideal” without guarantee of payoff at the end….
I doubt he could have articulated that at the time though.
To be unfair the SOB was looking down at me from the “dauntingly lucrative” position of being enrolled at Chico State as a Performing arts major who specialized in percussion. That’s drums by the way. And to back his point he then told me a story about how his assessment at Butte College included reading and writing, and that he’d achieved the highest level you could achieve on their assessment test.
“I’m level 5 in both.” He knew he was being a douche. Through smiling eyes he let his mouth hang open, a silent yeah hanging in the air between us as he agreed with himself. He’d baited the hook sure, and I knew nothing I said would change his mind, but I did feel insulted, and more than that I felt like all the people I’d come to know and love had been reduced to individual punchlines; or people who held no worth outside of academia according to this particular percussionist’s viewpoint.
I remember looking him and the eye. “That’s the difference. You’re reading level 5, and I’m literate.”
If I’d had a microphone that’s when I would have dropped it.
I don’t think he understood me then, and I’m not sure I knew exactly what I was saying then either. But what must have been on my mind was some half-formed notion that said I’m not going to let the system define what’s “good enough” for me, and you (my percussionist friend) have placed too much faith in systems of measurement neither of us played any role in defining. But I think this anecdote underscores the point that the predilection to view Literacy and Composition as “endpoints” or goalposts is something that really exists in our society, and the implications are myriad.
I’ll give you just three:
There comes a time every semester where I start to understand what kind of creature I’m dealing with. Make no mistake, a class and its teacher are very much a living organism that students must come to grapple with… Ultimately the grade we receive at the end of the semester is a single-letter survival narrative where a happy ending, and indeed “survival,” isn’t always guaranteed. Using the language of this course, the object or objects of the classroom are rarely explicitly growth and education by an easy and straight-forward understanding of both words. More often the objects of any classroom is Performance.
The tone of that final “Survival narrative” grade at the end of the semester is dependent on a students ability to divine the proper Modes of Performance for that particular class, that particular semester, and to never alienate the authority figure in charge (the teacher) so much so that their final letter grade is hurt beyond hope of recovery. Part of this navigation is figuring out what’s sayable in class and on paper.
There are some classes that encourage the voicing of true-thoughts, insights, and inquiries… and there are many more classes that encourage the learning of a script. Anything you say in class is valid so long as it’s on the script. In such a class you can only violate the tenets of the script once or twice in learning its boundaries before you risk changing the tone of that “single-letter survival narrative” at the end of the semester; the grade.
Why this semester alone I’m enjoying one class where I have the freedom, it seems, to say whatever the fuck I want so long as it’s productive and has a point in-line with the kind of inquiry this particular class is engaged in. I also have a class where I’m having to learn my prof’s opinions, and I already know I will be tested on being able to regurgitate her opinions on the bubble test as if they were fact, and not on my understanding of the discipline as it exists outside of her understanding, in reality. That second class wounds me morally on a day to day basis, and it is the kind of thing that would have undermined my academics back at Butte College (the JC that seems to feed into Chico State most efficiently).
But I’ve learned to be more compliant with hoop-jumping, and beyond that I’ve come to understand that even a situation like that may yield little nuggets of insightful gold if I approach it with a more-open mind, and relegate my own inquiries to the margins for further exploration when there is time, and when the teacher isn’t looking… and certainly never on the test.
In Reading Classrooms as Texts Jennie Nelson call these kinds of moves I’m engaging in on a semester to semester basis “Classroom Literacy.” Basically if you can’t understand the words in a book or an article you’re going to have a hard time getting anything positive from the time spent reading the book or article, and if you can’t read the teacher and the climate of her or his class then just like before you’re going to have a hard time getting anything positive from the time spent engaging with said class.
That and you’re “single-letter survival narrative” might be come an extinction narrative. Nelson goes on to describe the classroom in this way:
As members of the culture of school, students learn the routines of school, work, including lectures, seat work, tests, homework. They learn acceptable patterns of behavior, such as when and how to ask questions, and what kinds of responses are expected in class discussions (Nelson 412).
Already you begin to see how the ideals of growth and education are undermined by the necessity to perform well, and the crisis of being dumped into a situation where a course syllabus may or may not shed light on what a successful performance may entail.
Sink or swim you know?
I myself have faced a particular crossroads a number of times. I understand the grading of words can be highly arbitrary, and I’ve done my best to figure out which of my professors more readily appreciate my style so that I can stack the deck in my favor whenever possible when looking at which classes to chose for the next semester. Nelson goes on to say that, “…in learning how to be successful members of the culture of school, students develop interpretive practices and approaches that may undermine the goals of disciplinary learning” (Nelson 412). And to me this is another symptom of goal-post and achievement culture.
The “pressure to perform” well in any given situation is a pressure that promotes competition that A-grade, or that 4.0, or that trophy, or that great job (all synonyms for achievements and goal-posts in this culture of ours). So these pressures then function to undermine true-learning and true-exploration, because oftentimes that kind of learning and exploration would violate teacher expectations and therefore be a detriment to performing well in the classroom.
This is how we teach and promote compliance. In fact it’s gross, but compliance might actually be a part of our professional culture at the middle and lower-class socioeconomic levels. So I have to ask myself how does this culture and climate protect the status-quo? Perhaps this is a question I’ll have the stomach to return to in the course of this essay, but for now let it suffice to say that our goal-post fetish, as applied to writing seems to undermine true-thought and true-exploration, and true-innovation in my opinion.
We are teaching people to walk and to only walk, and to ignore their wings completely, and to be honest I know a lot of Professors who would have failed Freda Kahlo for daring to do otherwise. Wing-using is not in-line with compliance, and unless you prove the use of wings (metaphorically speaking of course) is economically viable your performance, and the results of said performance may be used as an example to teach compliance to the generations that come after.
“Remember when that one person tried to use their wings? Well they died, and if you ask me they were kind of asking for it weren’t they?”
I should probably show more restraint.
- Undermined Democracy