e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


Non-Academic Stuff I Read During Summer Vacation #2

Ramones, by Nicholas Rombes, presents an interesting, well-documented reading of the Ramones and their New York social context. A slight 128 pages, the book reads like a punk song: brief and without needless flourish. So much has been written about NYC punk rock--and End of the Century narrates the story of the Ramones in some detail, and in a gritty, fanboy style that's lots of fun--that the question you've got to ask becomes: does this short book say anything new? Answer's yes. Rombes avoids dishing on the drugs and the fights and pursues some important issues like the inseparable nature of punk music and punk journalism and the irrelevance of the tired authentic-inauthentic binary in most analyses of punk. Quite engaging.

Rombes claims that the Ramones (both album and band) present a "unified vision," acknowledging punk's antecedents but downplaying their significance. Here's where I disagree. As Rombes himself points out, these guys were obsessed with pop culture and drew heavily on horror movies, comic books, 60s girl groups, glam rock, and Iggy and the Stooges. But they also drew on elements of French cinema and other avant garde art forms. The Ramones were the sum of these influences--and then some--to the point of pastiche. That's not to dis the importance of their music; I share Rombes' enthusiasm for those songs. But his "originality" argument doesn't quite ring true for me.

Sidenote: Rombes teaches at my alma mater, UDM. He got there midway through my undergrad years but unfortunately I never took a class with him and only knew him in passing. If Ramones is any indication, my loss.


music today

Made a great vinyl find over the weekend at a flea market before leaving Youngstown. The Supremes--A Bit of Liverpool (Motown, 1964, and in very good shape). To quote the liner notes, "A tribute to their brothers--their brothers in song. Who better to give this tribute than the gals who have received all of the tributes themselves? The Supremes, The Number One Sweethearts of America." Nice find since it's unavailable on CD except in an out-of-print (and cheesy) "two records on one cd" compilation, but this one's all about the music, mostly covers of British invasion bands. Fun, rockin' stuff. Among the three Beatles tunes, the best here is their faithful version of "I Want to Hold Your Hand," which rivals Al Green's take on the song on his similarly awesome "Green is Blues" covers record.

Today on Stylus, a nice analysis of R.E.M.'s Reckoning, a fixture in my top ten 80s records.

When I should have been working on research, made a mix CD for my nephew, home sick with mono. Here's the line-up:
Tony’s Theme (The Pixies)
Call the Doctor (Sleater-Kinney)
Repeater (Fugazi)
Summer Babe (Pavement)
December 4th (DJ Danger Mouse & Jaz-Z)
What do I get? (The Buzzcocks)
Lazy Line Painter Jane (Belle & Sebastian)
B.O.B. (Outkast)
Hellicopter (Bloc Party)
Granny’s Little Chicken (Dirtbombs)
Folsom Prison Blues (Boogie Man Smash)
Germ Free Adolescents (X-Ray Spex)
Arkansas Heat (Gossip)
Mono (Courtney Love)
Only a Lad (Oingo Boingo)
People Have The Power (Pearl Jam)
Comin’ Round the Mountain (Funkadelic)
I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone (Sleater Kinney)
The District Sleeps Alone Tonight (Postal Service)

NYTimes on Class #2

One of the more interesting pieces to appear in "Class Matters" so far has been "On A Christian Mission to the Top," a look at how evangelical Christians are organizing to change the "class culture" in corporate boardrooms and at ivy league and other prestigious universities. The authors point out that statistically evangelicals became more affluent during the final decades of the twentieth century. But the article spends more time talking about how the culture of fundamenalist Christianity is gaining cultural capital in various high-prestige sites. They write:
What has changed is the class status of evangelicals. In 1929, the theologian H. Richard Niebuhr described born-again Christianity as the "religion of the disinherited." But over the last 40 years, evangelicals have pulled steadily closer in income and education to mainline Protestants in the historically affluent establishment denominations. In the process they have overturned the old social pecking order in which "Episcopalian," for example, was a code word for upper class, and "fundamentalist" or "evangelical" shorthand for lower.

Evangelical Christians are now increasingly likely to be college graduates and in the top income brackets. Evangelical C.E.O.'s pray together on monthly conference calls, evangelical investment bankers study the Bible over lunch on Wall Street and deep-pocketed evangelical donors gather at golf courses for conferences restricted to those who give more than $200,000 annually to Christian causes.

The Times' analysis nicely allows mobility, affluence, and cultural markers to intersect in this piece. It presents the most inclusive definition of class of all the pieces so far in the series.

It should also be required reading for new faculty members at my soon-to-be-former-institution, Miami-Hamilton, where so many of our students are working-class (and sometimes working-poor) evangelicals. I've had numerous experiences and conversations with students and other community members in the Hamilton area that illustrate this tension. Resistance to readings and films with "questionable content" certainly, but also some interesting red state-blue state kinds of dialogue (I've been asked to defend One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Catch 22, for example, and the ensuing conversation revealed radically different, and fascinating perspectives about the purpose of reading a novel--learning about the best the culture has to offer vs. learning about ALL the culture has to offer). There's a prevailing sense among our students, and much of the Hamilton community, that the culture of higher education is suspect, and even antithetical to their own ideologies. And at times they're right. The humanities in particular value contingent knowledges and contested truths, for example. The trouble is, the discussion in the popular press of these different ideologies often is reduced to the "elitism" trope.

Humanities ideology (sorry to get all reductive and imply that there's only one version of "humanities ideology"--in reality there are of course many version of the "liberal arts" value system) *is* elite in the sense that it's a value system that's got high cultural capital. A bookshelf full of canonical texts of western civilization (connoting "education") still has a higher prestige factor than a shelf of denominational religious literature (connoting at best "belief" and at worst "rube"). That is indeed a class issue. But as the Times piece illustrates, fundamentalist culture is itself quite "elite" from the standpoint of mobility and the bottom line: "The growing power and influence of evangelical Christians is manifest everywhere these days, from the best-seller lists to the White House" and, of course, corporate boardrooms.

The article--which might have carried a subtitle saying something like "From Bob Jones University to Harvard"--focuses on the organized effort to affect change at high-prestige universities in particular. It's hard to imagine the ivy league losing its secular and socially liberal character, but as conservative Christians increase and consolidate their political and financial clout it's a trend worth watching. The article points out that raising funds to work toward this kind of change is quite easy in the red states:
Mr. Havens, the Brown missionary, is part of the upsurge of well-educated born-again Christians. He grew up in one of the few white households in a poor black neighborhood of St. Louis, where his parents had moved to start a church, which failed to take off. Mr. Havens's father never graduated from college. After being laid off from his job at a marketing company two years ago, he now works in an insurance company's software and systems department. Tim Havens's mother home-schooled the family's six children for at least a few years each.

Mr. Havens got through Brown on scholarships and loans, and at graduation was $25,000 in debt. To return to campus for his missionary year and pay his expenses, he needed to raise an additional $36,000, and on the advice of Geoff Freeman, the head of the Brown branch of Campus Crusade, he did his fund-raising in St. Louis.

"It is easy to sell New England in the Midwest," as Mr. Freeman put it later. Midwesterners, he said, see New Englanders as "a bunch of heathens."

So Mr. Havens drove home each day from a summer job at a stone supply warehouse to work the phone from his cluttered childhood bedroom. He told potential donors that many of the American-born students at Brown had never even been to church, to say nothing of the students from Asia or the Middle East. "In a sense, it is pre-Christian," he explained.
The myth of the benevolence of the rich is alive and well for Havens, who later in the article says "God has always used wealthy people to help the church." Indeed, there's an overwhelming trust of the rich among the evanegelicals interviewed in the article--and among my own evangelical students. Whereas the "educated" are suspected for being elites, the rich are not usually subjected to such scrutiny.

Indeed the kind of "social change" that Havens et al wish to affect generally involves "moral issues," not broader issues of economic and social justice. Havens worries about promiscuity and homosexuality, not labor exploitation or racial inequality. Again, very consistent with my own experiences at MUH. I've talked to students about how this differs from my own experiences with Jesuit education--and I wish the Times had taken up the class dynamics of left-leaning campus activism on Catholic campuses like my own alma mater and other urban colleges and universities.

I hope to blog the series more--particularly the pieces that focus on education.


NYTimes on Class #1

Donna wonders why few are blogging "Class Matters," the NYTimes series on social class in the U.S. I think she's right in suggesting the series' lack of revelations explains the lack of reaction in the blogosphere.

The entire series is probably a bit too self-congratulatory. We're the Times putting our imprimatur on a cutting edge issue. We acknowledge that class matters. As if acknowledgment is the end in and of itself. The series also eschews commentary on the political import of class, instead focusing on (indeed, fetishizing) the individual. Narrative takes precedence here, precisely because that's what makes for "good"--i.e., enjoyable--journalism. The introduction to the series reviews statistical data mostly centering on the extent to which economic mobility is in decline. In short, fewer families are moving to higher quintiles (as Donna pointed out, nothing new here). But the series merely uses this set-up as context for the narratives that follow, rarely returning to the statistics and trends or putting the case studies in dialectic with the broader themes. Class exists. There's less mobility than most folks believe. Now, here are some stories about rich and poor people.

If the individual is fetishized, so too is U.S. society. Little mention of globalization, free trade, outsourcing, worldwide union busting, corporate monopolizing, or resistance to any of the aforementioned. From the introductory essay: "The economic forces that caused jobs to migrate to low-wage countries are still active." That's it. Jeesh, talk about under-developed.

The notion of class-as-culture receives similar short shrift. The series, especially that introduction, implicitly define class as the convergence of the overlapping categories of income, education, occupation, and wealth. By focusing on mobility, the piece sets up a familiar trope of class-as-economics. The series becomes pro-con first-year composition/debate team scenario: There are limitations on our ability to get ahead...agree or disagree? Back up your argument with an interesting story or two. Where's a broader discussion of popular culture, food and drink, leisure-time pursuits, concepts like taste and subjectivity and cultural capital? How about a piece on how the texts and artifacts from everyday civic life (like the NYTimes forgoodnesssake) are classed?

One more missed opportunity from the introduction.
[Amherst University President] Anthony W. Marx, explained: "If economic mobility continues to shut down, not only will we be losing the talent and leadership we need, but we will face a risk of a society of alienation and unhappiness. Even the most privileged among us will suffer the consequences of people not believing in the American dream."
The article lets those words sit there unchallenged. My response to Marx's sentiment is that maybe we ought to think about broad responses to inequality instead of stopgap measures for preventing the unhappiness that stems from inequality. He sounds more concerned with creating the illusion of equality. Would have been nice to represent such a point-of-view and put those perspectives into some kind of critical dialogue.

I'll say more about the series soon. In the meantime, for those interested in class, I'd suggest prining out copies of the articles before the Times moves the articles to its pay section.


CWCS Conference #2

Liberal-moderate pundit Ruy Texeira gave a talk, "Whither the White Working Class," (hereafter "wwc") this afternoon. Texeira spoke of the important role that the wwc plays in presidential electoral politics. Through much of the baby boom years democrats owned the wwc vote, but 1968 and 1972 saw the first backlash, when only 35% of the wwc vote went to the dems--that's a twenty point drop from the previous presidential election of '64. The second backlash came in '80 and '84 when, once again, only 35% of the wwc voted with the democrats. The democrats, Texeira says, never recovered from the two Reagan victories in terms of the wwc. Clinton won the wwc by a slight margin; Gore/Lieberman and Kerry/Edwards lost them by big margins.

Kind of interesting.

Texeira saw this as evidence of a need for the dems to move to the center--although I suspect he'd disagree with that characterization. At several points he conflated "good" and "moderate," making clear that he equates the two concepts (e.g., In terms of her voting record, Hillary Clinton is a good senator, very moderate.). He said the dems need to articulate their vision with niftier, shorter soundbites that appeal to the middle of the road. He urged the crowd to push the dems away from so-called polarizing liberals (again, a Hillary Clinton example: she "comes to bat with two strikes against her") so that they can re-capture the tens of thousands of votes that the GOP took from them, a demographic typified by the wwc.

I couldn't disagree more. Texeira wants the democrats to out-republican the republicans and that strategy DOESN'T WORK. Why should the left pander to regressives who can't handle a strong woman on the ballot? Why should the left imitate the values-laden rhetoric of the right? Why should we try to nickel and dime a victory by getting those pro-Bush wwc moderates? Why not tap the millions of white, black, and brown members of the working class and working poor who are disenfranchised from the entire process?

Texeira framed the issues in an interesting fashion but I suspect that many in the room, like myself, were lefties who gritted their teeth and fought for Kerry despite his less-than-progressive stances on Iraq and healthcare. And I get the sense that he knew he was losing the crowd, since his answers to critical queries grew shorter as the session progressed.
Later in the afternoon, Tony Esposito and Tony Peyronel did a session on Springsteen-as-icon. I walked away connecting in my head two great ironic-iconic images: Nixon and Elvis at the White house in the 70s and Springsteen and John Kerry on the campaign trail in '04.

Clearly it's the "Post Election Debacle of 2004" conference. Yee-ha!

CWCS Conference #1

Seventh Biennial Conference of the Center for Working-Class Studies (CWCS). This is my fourth time taking part in "the Youngstown conference," by far my favorite academic meeting. In addition to panels, CWCS always features poetry/prose readings, opportunities to take part in community/activist activities, and mini-trips (I toured one of Youngstown's horrific "supermax" prisons four years back). Plus, great group of people.

Last night Mike Rose gave the keynote address. Rose read from The Mind at Work, his exploration of blue-collar workplaces as sites of "neck up" work. I wrote a review of the book for Rhetoric Review and taught the book in my graduate class this past semester, so I've spent a lot of time thinking about Rose's research. One of the thing that fascinates me is thinking about the chapter on waitressing in contrast to other recent representations of waitressing. Rose's gaze is so different from, say, Barbara Ehrenreich in Nickel and Dimed. Rose looks at waitressing and sees complex and often abstract cognitive functioning (memorizing, ordering and prioritizing of tasks, negotiating complicated relationships with various agents, etc.) whereas Ehrenreich looks at waitressing and sees an often abusive labor arrangement. Alright, two different methods, two different sets of interest, and two different focuses. Obvious enough. But given all that we know about the complexity of texts (their ability to be "academic," "civic," "activist" all at once) the contrast between the two representations of the same line of work is interesting. The grad students were quite critical of what they saw as a glossing over of the injustices. Again, the waitressing chapter: Rose refers to how the waitresses (including his mother) respond to sexist comments from customers. For Rose, an opportunity to discuss cognition. But is there an ethical obligation to analyze the gendered nature of this real-world rhetorical situation? Texts like Ehrenreich's and Rose's are such rich teaching texts (little wonder both writers are often anthologized)--my prediction is that exerpts from both Nickel and Dimed and The Mind at Work will become staples of composition readers in the next few years.

There are so many generative opportunities for conceiving of the workplace-as-text and work-as-topoi. It's a shame that rhetoric and composition isn't better represented at the Youngstown conference.

Anyway, Rose's talk was more of a conversation. After a short reading from the introduction, audience members nudged Rose in different directions. Rose spent some time considering the question of whether "mind work" on the job translates into high cognition in other--namely civic--domains. In other words, do these blue-collar workplaces foster particular kinds of thinking when the worker is no longer at work? We sort of assume that, say, learning to think the way one must think in a geometry or foriegn language class has implications for becoming "educated"...Rose raises the question of whether learning to think like a line worker or waitress or hair dresser also gives individuals particular kinds of cognitive skills. Rose's thesis includes the idea that dismissing these blue-collar domains as sites of Fordist disciplining is too simple and fails to account for some interesting mind and body work going on there.

More on conference later.


Ohio towns

Blogging on location from Youngstown, Ohio, where I'm in town for the Center for Working-Class Studies conference at the end of this week. Driving across Ohio inspired my list of...

10. Lima (pronounced like the bean, not the city in Peru)
9. Vienna (first syllable rhymes with "eye")
8. Bellefontaine ("bell fountain")
7. Lowellville ("low-ville")
6. Newark (often comes out in one syllable)
5. Toledo (okay, the pronunciation might surprise you if you're from Spain!)
4. Bucyrus (rhymes with "view virus")
3. East Palestine (pal-ah-STEEN)
2. Medina (ma-DYE-na)
1. Pataskala (surprising no matter how you say it)


Non-Academic Stuff I Read During Summer Vacation #1

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson is an angsty piece of "young adult" (y.a.) fiction that I appreciate because Anderson refuses to sanitize the outcast-narrator. Anderson lets Malinda--a high school freshmen who exists on the margins of her school's social worlds--be miserable and awkward. [Consider this "nerd" representation in contrast to, say, Seth on the O.C., a show that feels compelled to portray its nerd as a hip, funny, ironic, guy who's tight with the best-looking kids at school.] Malinda's a great character who keeps readers wincing in scenes that (mostly) transcend y.a. cliches. It's hard to create a fresh image of a dejected teen, but Anderson does just that. Interesting character; interesting piece of work.

Thanks to Ohio Writing Project teachers for recommending Anderson's novel. They report that this is the book their junior high and high school students currently love. And I must confess a long-standing affinity for this genre of fiction that dates back to loving Robert Cormier, the master of "serious y.a. fiction," starting in sixth grade. Cormier's I Am the Cheese creeped me out more than anything I'd read or watched so far. I got to meet Cormier twice, in 1988 and 1998, the first time as a junior high student participating in English Festival (kind of like a science fair for kids who love reading) and the second time as a graduate student volunteering at English Festival, before his death a few years back. A generous writer, Cormier frequented the Festival and would sign autographs and listen to kids for hours on end.

Speak doesn't put Anderson in Cormier's league, but if you count the O.C. as a guilty pleasure, give it a look.


obligatory post on reading student papers

Had final meeting with grad students last night. Dinner and informal presentations of seminar papers at my place...in that order. Dinner: stuffed grape leaves, hummus, salad with lots of basil and fresh mozzarella, spinach pizza. Presentations: identity construction & the blue collar comedy tour, confederate flag debate as embodiment of cultural capital, Canada's "fat" tax, belletrism at Appalachian settlement schools, and more. What great work. Over the next year or two these ought to morph into nine published articles. As I comment on the papers--asking questions, making suggestions, suggesting further connections--I envision the articles thrusting Aune, Lukacs, and Bourdieu (easily the three most cited theorists in the stack of papers) into the field's spotlight. A rhetoric revolution.

Sirc on Cobain

It's been a long time since I read something that made me want to re-assess classroom practice. Geoffrey Sirc's "Composition's Eye/Orpheus's Gaze/Cobain's Journals," in the new issue of Composition Studies, has got me thinking about what I want to do in writing courses next fall. Sirc starts with an image of Jim Corder asking "why in the hell" his students would want to write the tired essays he was assigning, and then posits Kurt Cobain's journals as a model of a different medium, a different "representational technology," a different "way of seeing."

Sirc reviews familiar critiques of textbook pedagogy--they emphasize consumption over production, they foster dispassionate and disengaged "essays"--and then gets us thinking about writing informed by Orpheus's gaze: something forbidden, something indulgent, and yet something everyday. Of students Sirc says "I can often get them to see the logic of memorializing their everyday, of capturing their unprogrammed interactions with other people and their environment" (15). He looks at Kurt Cobain's sad musings on fame, the state of music and culture, and spirituality, and wonders how journaling both constructed a world and helped (or not) Cobain think about the extant world..."self reflection as self definition" (18).

Thinking about Cobain, Sirc calls for a rethinking of journals in the classroom. If I'm getting the article (and I want to go back and read it again), though, he's calling for a particular use of those journals. Not as a place merely to reflect on the belletristic essay you just read, as a place to make banal lists: what did you see on the street today? what did you buy this week? what songs would you put on a mixtape today?

I've been thinking about these kinds of assignments (in anticipation of adding a significant blog component to writing classes next year) and how they could dovetail and sequence with other writing projects and the Cobtain connection has me thinking even more. I'm not sure what to make of Sirc positioning this mode, this way of seeing, as a response to the Jim Corder question "why in the hell would they want to write this?" If Cobain embodies this way of seeing (the indulgent, banal, everyday), then I gotta ask: why in the hell would they want to write this?

More on this later. What a great article. Makes me want to start putting together the fall syllabi (being that it's the last day of the spring term and all!).