This Circle Has an End: Teaching "Myself," Fifteen Years Later

Heidi J. Jones, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Department of English
University of Wisconsin-La Crosse


A reflection of my own navigation through the middle class normality of academia, this paper aims to inform the reader how and why working-class student voices are often muted within the academy and to explain how college instructors can provide opportunities for working-class students, and all students, to have powerful literacy experiences in their classrooms. The scope is framed as such in order to call upon my knowledge and experiences as both a working-class, first-generation college student and working-class academic and an experienced instructor of college writing. I am hopeful that the inclusion of a synthesis of critical pedagogy, as well as an explanation of why and how to include literacy narratives and student voice into the writing curricula, will be beneficial for instructors who want more opportunities to incorporate student voice in their writing assignments.

[1] Sitting in my favorite Chinese restaurant in Dinkytown, I cracked open my fortune cookie and read it aloud to my friend Jason: "Good news is on its way." Within a minute of that fortune, I received a call from the Dean of the College of Liberal Studies at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, offering me a job as the English Education specialist in the English Department. I let it go to voicemail because I recognized the number, and I was not prepared to answer, and frankly, I hadn't asked my advisor HOW to answer that kind of phone call. So, I just sat and waited for the voicemail to load. I did not really know how to do much in the world of academia, and I relied on others who were more familiar with the "rules" and habits of the academic world to provide me with advice, and sometimes, to just point-blank tell me how and what to do. You see, I'm a working-class academic, so everything about the academy was, and still is, foreign to me. Higher education was not created for people like me, people who aren't raised with the middle class values and cultural capital to succeed, people who know that hard work typically involves the body, the hands and a bucket of sweat.

[2] I got the courage to listen to the message, and when I hung up, I smiled, and said, "La Crosse just offered me a job!" Although this was a very happy moment, it was a strange moment as well. La Crosse is about an hour from where I grew up in rural Wisconsin, and I often drove through it on my way to and from my parents' house when I attended Winona State University for my B.S. and M.A. I was open to going anywhere after my Ph.D, and after more than 30 phone/skype interviews and three other campus visits, the school that was interested in me was right back where I started: rural Wisconsin.

[3] I called up my parents to tell them of the offer, and they were ecstatic. Yes, they were glad I had any offer after going to graduate school for seven straight years, not always having money or health insurance, and honestly, I don't think they ever thought the day would come. They were even happier to learn I'd be coming back to the area, after having lived in the Twin Cities and Baltimore. This happiness was a stark change from their reaction when I told them I was leaving my secondary English teaching job in Baltimore after three years to go to graduate school. My working-class parents didn't understand why I would leave a job I had trained for and was good at to go back into debt and to live off a $10,000/year stipend with no health insurance. To them, I had attained the American Dream of earning a four-year degree, something neither of them had done.

[4] As evidenced above, as a first-generation college student, I've spent most of my time since earning my B.S. in teaching in 2003 justifying to my parents why I needed and wanted further education. Growing up in a small town of 5,000 people in southwestern Wisconsin, it was just assumed that my brother and I would go to college. My parents had hope that we could improve our lives and move up from our working-class backgrounds. My father had been employed at a cheese factory for nearly twenty years by the time I graduated high school, and my mother quit her job as a typesetter to work in a seat factory soon after.

[5] My parents were very upfront with us about how tuition would be paid: my brother and I were responsible for it. We took out extensive loans, and I worked up to three jobs at a time while attending college full-time. We also returned to our hometown during the summers and worked in factories to make more money. I worked in a factory that made parts for Harley Davidson motorcycles and as a laboratory tech at the cheese factory; my brother worked overnight cleanup at the cheese factory. We would often hear my parents make comments like "Now you know what REAL hard work is like," and "Aren't you glad you got your education so you only have to do this for a few weeks at a time?"

[6] When I decided to leave my teaching job in Maryland to return to Minnesota for my M.A., my parents were happy about the relocation but unhappy about my unemployment. My father got me a job at the cheese factory for the summer. I was no longer a lab tech; I was now hoisting two, ten-pound blocks of mozzarella cheese into a box every three seconds for eight hours straight. I worked a rotating shift, which meant that sometimes I had eight hours off, and then I had to return to work. It was only for six weeks, but I felt like I lost my soul. I felt numb, downtrodden and brain-dead.

[7] It was sad going to work everyday and hearing the factory workers say, "Make sure you finish your degree so you don't end up like me" in a very robotic and unemotional tone. My father often asked me how the job was going throughout the summer, and he continued to tell me that the job was good for me because it taught me that I couldn't just sit around and take out loans and take it easy while others were working. He felt that my going to school was taking the easy way out. I felt that he had no idea how difficult it was to gain access in the academic world. I still feel today, after finishing my first year as an Assistant Professor of English, that he doesn't understand my dual identity and my struggle to maintain the Heidi Jo he raised in a working-class world within a world that demands that I call myself Doctor and Professor; in addition, I have somehow since dropped the Jo in my name and changed it to J...

Feeling Empowered: A Working-Class Kid in Graduate School

[8] One of my very first assignments as an M.A. student at Winona State University was to write a literacy narrative. I remember being confused about the assignment, which required me to write about a time when I could remember learning how to read or write for a given situation or purpose. Several of my colleagues wrote about learning to read, writing poetry or earning an award for a short story.  I was trying to remember back as far as first grade at one point, but then a really important memory came to me. It was about a time that I felt as if academia was trying to resist my entrance but also a time where my persistence really paid off. I wrote about learning how to write for the academy in my first two years of college.

[9] I was granted entrance into the university at age 18, only to find out that just because I could get admitted didn't necessarily mean I could succeed. I managed to pass first-year writing with a B without really understanding what it meant to write for academia. It wasn't until my sophomore year as an English major that I was told I needed "remediation" in writing. This came as a shock to me since I had always been in the highest reading and writing groups in all of my years of schooling. It seems that I was quite literate in the first two levels of what Patrick Finn (1999) calls the levels of literacy: performative, functional, informational and powerful, but what did it mean to have a powerful literacy? Sadly, I don't think I experienced the powerful level of literacy until I was 26 years old when I sat down to write my first literacy narrative for my composition methods course. I had survived K-12 schooling and an undergraduate degree without ever feeling empowered. I had also taught secondary English for three years and somehow never interrogated my own class identity.

[10] At the time the literacy narrative was assigned, I was finally beginning to understand how power and politics impact public schooling, and, until this point, I had never really thought about my experiences as a first-generation college student from a working-class background. It was through writing this narrative that I began to understand how much my working-class culture shaped who I was as a student, teacher and academic. In a way, my literacy narrative has a place within a book like This Fine Place So Far From Home because it tells of my learning and yearning to acquire the language and life of an academic. It was a turning point in my life because I became literate in academia; I became part of the discourse community. It was also at this moment that I learned of the dual identities I would retain for the rest of my life.

Gatekeeping and Surveillance in Academia

[11] My undergraduate experience was not unique, at least in terms of social class. What working-class students find out early on is that college is not as simple as attending classes and earning high marks. In fact, Kenneth Oldfield (2007) asserts that

No matter what the distance they have physically traveled to their campus, college requires a cultural journey to a very different land than the one they knew as youngsters. For first-generation poor and working-class college students, surviving the social challenges of higher learning can be at least as demanding as achieving a high grade point average. (3)

The conflict rests in the academy itself, which honors middle class discourse and culture and fails to acknowledge working-class discourse and culture. Students and instructors enter into a systematic structure with political power dynamics.  Each student and instructor has his/her own habitus, which Bourdieu (1990) defines as "systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles of the generation and structuring of practices and representations which can be objectively ‘regulated' and ‘regular' without in any way being the product of obedience to rules" (72). A working-class student's habitus, then, is distinctly different than that of a student within the middle class; the values, practices and representations differ, and perhaps, even collide. Habitus can be further characterized by Bourdieu's concepts of capital.

[12] To Bourdieu (1980), social capital is "understood as effective possession of a network of kinship (or other) relations capable of being mobilized or at least manifested" (35). To working-class students, social capital is likely isolated to their neighborhood and immediate surroundings, and they are typically seen as outsiders within the middle class discourse of schooling. Because they are lacking in social capital, working-class students almost always have a different type of cultural capital than their middle class classmates. According to Bourdieu (1980) cultural capital is "cultural competence ... inserted into the objective relations set up between the system of economic production and the system producing the producers (which is itself constituted by the relationship between the educational system and the family)" (124). Working-class students are often discussed as having a "lack" of cultural capital, but I would argue that they just have a different type of cultural capital. This "different type" of cultural capital does not prepare them for the type(s) of capital that are valued within American public schooling.

[13] Although working-class college students have likely experienced this cognitive, or even social, dissonance their entire school career, it is even more exacerbated when they reach college. Michael Apple (1995) writes, "as a state apparatus schools perform important roles in assisting in the creation of the conditions necessary for capital accumulation (they sort, select, and certify a hierarchically organized student body) and legitimation (they maintain an inaccurate meritocratic ideology, and therefore, legitimate the ideological forms necessary for the recreation of inequality)" (13). Here, Apple (1995) claims that schooling is just another superstructure that reproduces the status quo without much thought or question.

[14] Because academia is predominantly genre-based, and success relies on learning and achieving within these genres, gatekeepers and gate-keeping techniques are used to ensure that people have the tools needed to achieve in a community before they are granted entry. According to Allan Luke (1997), "in many local sites, writing may function as an institutional means of surveillance...Foucault argues that one of the principal institutional uses of writing is the surveillance of the population, the monitoring, control and administration of bodies into measures of merit, value and moral worth" (324). Writing is often used as an assessment of knowledge and skill in the university, and the grade that is earned is essentially a measure of intellectual value within a discourse community. Those who learn and excel in writing are allowed to enter the institution and will have an opportunity to elevate to higher levels within its framework; those who do not learn or excel at writing are informed of their lack of understanding early on, and if they do not seek assistance or learn how to overcome their "weaknesses," they will not be granted entrance into the world of academia.

[15] In order to ease the turbulent navigation through these codes and genres, I am arguing that college instructors need to include student voice and experiences within their lessons and within their writing assignments. The easiest way to begin to include these marginalized, and often muted, voices is through assigning a specific genre, the literacy narrative.

The Use of Narratives in College Classes

[16] Several of my colleagues started their first semester teaching writing-emphasis courses by assigning a personal narrative or literacy narrative. However, they were later persuaded by more experienced instructors to drop such an assignment because it did not match the demands of university writing. In other words, these colleagues had adopted the idea that the academy was not interested in student voices or student lives but rather interested in the fact that students could robotically write a persuasive essay without using "I" or "me." At that point in my career, I figured those people were probably right, and I remembered my own experiences at that same university as an undergraduate. I never wrote about my own thoughts or my own lived experiences in any classes during my undergraduate career. It was the instructor's job to teach me how to write for academic audiences, and those audiences did not care who I was; instead, they cared about how I could use rhetorical language and references to persuade them to think a certain way. First-year students who are assigned a literacy narrative may think that no one else will have a similar, classed story to tell, but what makes this type of assignment so powerful is that through structured work in small groups and peer review, they may soon realize there are likely other students who are from similar backgrounds.

[17] In my first year as Assistant Professor of English Education at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, a school in which 40% of its population is first-generation college students, the literacy narrative seemed to be both a freeing experience for some first-year writing students and a paralyzing experience for others. They had been told throughout their K-12 experiences that writing was formal, that they couldn't use "I' and that everything they write needs to have a lock-step thesis statement. Some students asked the same questions over and over: "Can I really use "I" in this paper?" and "So there isn't necessarily a one-sentence thesis at the end of the first paragraph?" Because the course was designed to be genre-based, the students read several literacy narratives, such as Frederick Douglass' "Learning to Read and Write," Malcolm X's "Learning to Read," and Mike Rose's "I Just Wanna Be Average," all of which focus on social class, among other constructs. Discussions focused on aspects of the genres and the voices of the authors, and students began to realize that social class is something that others experience, something that others in their very same row of desks experience.

[18] I had students fill out a survey about their reading and writing experiences when they were younger to engage them in brainstorming. The survey did provide some students with a concrete idea they ran with, while other students couldn't remember any important events. I told them to go home and ask their parents, their siblings and their friends for help. According to student feedback, one of the most helpful exercises we did in class was a brainstorming, in-the-moment, with your eyes-closed, activity.

[19] I asked the students to close their eyes and remember the specific time they wanted to use for their literacy narrative. I asked them go back to that place, to sit in it, to notice the sounds, the smells, the tastes, how they felt on the inside, etc. during this moment. Once they experienced this activity for a few minutes, I asked them to engage in a freewrite about what they were thinking. The students wrote for over fifteen minutes, the longest they had ever written in the course! Some of the students even used parts of this freewrite in their literacy narratives because it was so dense with descriptive language. In midterm and final course evaluations, some students mentioned that they liked reading the very same genres they were expected to write and that they especially enjoyed the literacy narrative because they were given an opportunity to tell the reader a story.

Theorizing Narratives and Identity

[20] What are narratives, and what makes them an appealing genre to read and write? First, in definition, a narrative "...must contain action or transformation and characters, which must be brought together within an overall plot" (Lawler, 2008, 14). Narratives allow the author to create meanings from their own personal histories, demonstrating a sense of control over their lives, their education and their stories (Robillard, 2003). By creating a narrative, the author is able to produce various identities through gathering various experiences, memories, etc. (Lawler, 2008). What is important about narratives though is that they "cannot stand alone but must refer to and draw on wider cultural narratives" (Lawler, 2008, 12). By taking a sociological perspective on identity as it relates to stories, Lawler (2008) states, "The self is understood as unfolding through episodes which both express and constitute the self. The very constitution of an identity is configured over time and through narrative" (16-17). Therefore, the authors of narratives are discussing their unfolding and changing identities throughout the episodic nature of the story. Identity, then, is "not something foundational and essential, but something produced through the narratives people use to explain and understand their lives...the reason we see the self in this way is because we constantly tell and retell stories which produce it as something continuing through time (Lawler, 2008, 17). Stories allow people to talk about themselves as they relate to the world. Robillard (2003) writes, "Stories are constructs as much as social class is a construct. Social class consciousness is something that is developed through storytelling. Take away narrative and you take away any meaningful discussion of class" (79). As a social construct, narratives allow readers to understand lived experiences and to somehow relate to what the author has been through. Soliday (1994) insists, "An author of a successful literacy story goes beyond recounting ‘what happened' to foreground the distance between an earlier and a present self conscious of living in time" (514). When students identify a moment in their lives and they deconstruct it, they begin to understand that they DO have knowledge about something and that their voices do matter. What the instructor must do, then, in the lessons and activities leading up to this assignment, is to encourage students to brainstorm events, to engage in discussions about influential moments in their lives and to read sample narratives that demonstrate the types of writing and storytelling instructors expect to be present in the students' writing.

[21] In addition, it is important to not just leave student voice behind AFTER this assignment, but to interrogate the context with which these stories took place and how each individual is constructed within societal systems. While all of this sounds dreamlike and streamlined, unfortunately the reality of institutional control, expectations and middle class values can sometimes cause instructors to hesitate assigning writing that emphasizes creativity, narrative and student voice. Because conventional academic approaches to writing emphasize formality, there is often little room for personal expression and creativity.

Literacy Narratives and Critical Pedagogy: A Happy Marriage

[22] As mentioned earlier, merely assigning one essay that "allows" students to tell their stories is not enough, yet it is a good starting point for instructors who want to begin to transition to a more democratic, more dignified pedagogy that acknowledges all people. In addition to assigning personal writing assignments, instructors should engage in critical pedagogy in their classes so their students begin to understand how their personal experiences are likely not unique and that the issues they discuss in their stories are issues brought about by the institutional and systematic frameworks that shape our society.

[23] The goal of a critical, liberatory and/or transformative pedagogy is collective action. According to Bourdieu (1990), collective action " constituted in the dialectical relationship between, on the one hand, a habitus, understood as a system of lasting, transposable dispositions which, integrating past experiences, functions at every moment as a matrix of perceptions, appreciations, and actions and makes possible the achievement of infinitely diversified tasks..." (82-83). In short, what Bourdieu is calling for is exactly what critical pedagogues long for: a revolutionary action as a result of social education. In order to understand the potential of critical pedagogy in the classroom, I will provide a brief synthesis below.

Roots of Critical Pedagogy

[24] The emergence of critical pedagogy can be traced back to the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory (Kincheloe 2008). There, scholars focused "their attention on the changing nature of capitalism ... [and] analyzed the mutating forms of domination that accompanied this change" (Kincheloe, 2008, 46). The role of critical theory in the 21st century is constantly evolving and Kincheloe (2008) offers a primer "on one idiosyncratic ‘take' on the nature of critical theory in the first decade of the twenty-first century" (48). Some of the most important aspects of an ever-changing critical pedagogy came from Antonio Gramsci. First defined by Gramsci (1988), cultural hegemony occurs when one social class rules and the values and ideologies of that class are considered the norm. One example of hegemony, then, is the ways in which public schooling is a middle class institution in the United States; the curriculum, tests, tracking and predominant pedagogies honor those students who have, or have adopted, middle class values. A goal of critical pedagogy is for students to learn and understand the hegemonic structure of their local and national government in order to understand their own identity within this superstructure. Gramsci (1988) also coined the phrase, "philosophy of praxis" in order to describe the moments in time when one is between a structure and superstructure, where one should become politically engaged in the social inequities of the structure. These two ideas were important foundational concepts for Paulo Freire and continue to be in the current practices of critical pedagogy.

[25] The current reverberations of critical pedagogy lie in the work of Freire, a Brazilian educator determined to educate his students about the word and the world. Kincheloe (2008) writes that Freire "taught us that education is always political and teachers are unavoidably political operatives. Teaching is a political act—there's no way around it" (70). Throughout his years of exploring critical pedagogy, "one of the most important dimensions...involved the cultivation of a critical consciousness. Liberation and critical hope cannot be attained, he contended, until students and teachers address the nature of a naïve consciousness and the maneuvers involved in moving from a naïve to a critical consciousness" (Freire, 2009, 72).

[26] To Freire (2009), a critical pedagogue is someone who is "committed to imagine a world...that is less ugly, more beautiful, less discriminatory, more democratic, less dehumanizing, and more humane" (25). In order to make these imaginings more concrete, a critical pedagogue works undauntedly to have students think critically about the world and the word and to create an environment where the students can create a critical consciousness about the oppressive nature of social structures. Critical pedagogy aims to upset the traditional hierarchical teacher-student relationship by allowing space for discourse to illuminate learning for both the teacher and the students. In myriad ways, the social structure of power within a classroom is seen as a microcosm of the outside world; once teachers disrupt this power dynamic within the classroom, the students will hopefully begin to see that these power dynamics can be transformed from the roles of teacher and students to teacher-student and student-teacher (Freire, 2009, 80).

[27] Critical pedagogy aims to empower those who are oppressed or disenfranchised within a capitalistic/hierarchical society (Freire, 2009; Kincheloe, 2008); in order for pedagogy to be critical and transformative, the teacher and the students must be aware of their context and their "place" within this socially stratified world. While the pedagogy is important, the curriculum is also imperative; it must be culturally relevant and stimulate student interest while simultaneously challenging them to think outside of the box. The teacher must maintain some sense of authority, although not an over-bearing, teacher-centered philosophy, because she is the one facilitating the pedagogy; this authority, however, is more implicit than explicit since the students are the ones who are primarily creating new knowledge.

[28] Teachers must learn to balance this idea of authority, management and facilitation as they progress in their careers; a good critical pedagogy doesn't just appear one day. They will need to work at their craft and be reflective practitioners in order to progress as critical educators. It is the critical pedagogue's job, then, to provide space for students to explore, interpret and question all of those "truths" they've been forced to learn. There is no better place to engage in critical pedagogy than the university and in the voices and eventual actions of students. Allowing students to express themselves through writing creates a space for learning AND empowerment.

Expanding the Role of Student Voice in Academic Writing

[29] Typically, writing for academia involves developing a thesis statement or argument, supporting the argument with evidence and explaining why it all matters. What is lost in this systematic way of teaching writing is student voice. When voice is discussed in writing pedagogy, it often refers to the student donning an academic hat and appropriating an academic voice. Students soon learn that their own voice, the voice of the individual human experience, must essentially be muted. In order to reverse this muting process, I suggest that college instructors include a narrative assignment within their courses, as well as encourage students to engage in topics and write with their own authentic voices.

[30] One of main reasons why I am urging the inclusion of narratives in the college classroom is in order to "encourage our students to create their own meanings from their own histories, thereby allowing them to entertain some sense of control over their educations and their lives" (Robbilard, 2003, 76).     Much of Robillard's (2003) concern surrounding narratives is their absence of them, even after the social-turn in composition:

While this move [the narrative being replaced by analysis] makes sense in light of the so-called social turn in composition—a move toward writing for a real audience and an emphasis on not just the production of texts but the circulation of texts—I cannot help but wonder why the social turn translates into the death of personal narrative and the misrecognition of social class. (77)

There seems to be confusion as to what the social turn in composition means; to some, it means writing for a real audience, but to others it means being aware of your own social position in the world. Some people believe that awareness of social position does not improve the writing or writer because the writer must still acknowledge the bourgeois values of objectivity and impersonal voice that are often, unfortunately, features of academic writing. Others believe that the awareness of social position in reference to a "real audience" reframes the entire writing experience because the writer can use both personal response and rhetorical strategies to construct a compelling argument. Acting as a type of buffer between these two ideologies, a literacy narrative is an excellent way for students to reflect on their own experiences and their relationship to the world because it involves a focus on a specific event that is highly influenced by social position and requires the students to reflect the impact that event had on their lives.

[31] For Soliday (1994), the social turn means a return to the students' authentic voice, to "those moments when the self is on the threshold of possible intellectual, social, and emotional ... [that is when] literacy narratives become sites of self-translation where writers can articulate meanings and the consequences of their passages between language worlds" (511). If narratives provide such an empowering experience for people, why is there hesitation to assign narratives in the university?

[32] For one, social class is difficult to acknowledge and to talk about. Secondly, some instructors think that narratives are easy to write. If instructors do assign narratives, they assign it as the first assignment and then move on to more "academic" genres. As Robillard (2003) claims: "We assign the personal narrative as the first assignment in a writing course, a sort of warm-up exercise for more abstract, analytical, academic writing" (81). Yes, it is okay to assign the literacy narrative first, but I'm not calling for the elements of a narrative to be thrown out after the first assignment; instead, I'm calling for a narrative to be the first assignment in order to convince students that their voices matter. If this approach is adopted, in an a classroom where critical pedagogy and critical literacy are engaged, students will understand that their authentic voices matter because personal narratives will be woven into various genres of writing throughout the entire semester.

[33] Some may argue that the inclusion of narratives does more harm than good, that it does not prepare students for the demands of academic writing. I highly disagree, as the genre of narrative allows students to use their own experiences and pre-existing knowledge to better understand concepts and ideas that are complex and necessary. The relationship between culture and schooling has been a topic in a plethora of publications, and, according to Soliday (1994),

Discussions of the role that tensions between discourse worlds might play in the texts of basic writers—who are also usually minority, immigrant, and working-class students—raise important political concerns that by teaching students to manipulate the conventions and forms of academic language, writing teachers are unthinkingly acculturating students into the academy and glossing over issues of difference in the classroom. (512)

Here, Soliday (1994) argues that schooling essentially teaches students that their own authentic voices don't matter and that without opportunities, these students learn that they need to assimilate their voices to fit academic requirements. But, does this mean that composition instructors have to choose between the personal and the analytical? Robillard (2003) believes that narratives and analysis complement each other and that "we support it [personal writing] because we know, intuitively, experientially, logically, theoretically, that narrative and argument interanimate each other" (82). So, why not mix the personal with the analytical? Why not provide spaces for student's authentic voices to come to bear any or all issues? I have found the literacy narrative assignment to be powerful, both as a teacher and as a writer of one

The Epitome of Empowerment: Analyzing my Own Literacy Narrative

[34] It wasn't until my first year in an MA program that I felt like my voice mattered, and if it weren't for Dr. Krase introducing the literacy narrative assignment to me, I'm not sure I'd have understood its importance for my own self-development as a human being, a writer and a working-class academic. To demonstrate the importance of the literacy narrative in my growth as a learner and teacher, I have included it in Appendix A. In addition, below I will provide a basic analysis of what the literacy narrative is "doing" in relation to my class identity and how this very analysis, which was done about three years later in my PhD program, fueled me to assign a literacy narrative to first-year writing teachers. By framing this analysis with the theme of the working-class identity, it is clear that my approach to revising the paper for Dr. Cowgill and my approach to writing the literacy narrative itself are heavily influenced by my working-class background. The themes of working-class values, the culture of power and literacy sponsors are explored in both theory and practice.

Working-Class Values

[35] There are values held by the working class that had a distinct impact on my life, which are also evident in the literacy narrative. One of the main ideas I learned at a young age was self-reliance. If a problem arose, my parents worked to resolve it individually or as a couple and never really sought help from others. If I had a problem at school or with a friend, they would offer advice and then often told me that I could work it out on my own. They told me that by making decisions on my own I would have control over my life and would be proud of the outcomes. The emphasis on individual responsibility carried over to my academics, and since I can remember, I've felt a strong urge to succeed and to accomplish my goals on my own. Perhaps this conceptualization of individualism resulted from the fact that my parents' jobs did not include collective bargaining rights or that a majority of their involvement in the larger community was a direct result of the activities in which my brother and I participated. In addition, I consider my "family" to be my father, mother and brother because I don't really know my extended family well. We used to get together for a few hours on holidays, and even though a majority of my parents' siblings (11 on my mother's side, two on my father's side) lived within an hour from us, my family solved our problems as a team of four, or as individual members of our small family unit.

[36] The passage where Dr. Cowgill suggests that I go to the writing center for help reveals my tendency to fall back on self-reliance: "I walked out of the classroom in tears, not knowing if I should bother consulting a tutor or if I could just sit down and decipher the problem on my own." My first reaction was to contemplate figuring out the problem on my own; luckily, I decided to take the professor's advice and seek help, which helped me gain access to the discourse community faster than I would have on my own.

[37] After I gained the tools to write an academic paper, the narrative suggests that I felt like I could then rely on myself again. The tendency to revert back to old habits is evident when I write:

I was learning to "extend [myself] into the commonplaces, set phrases, rituals, gestures, habits of mind, tricks of persuasion, obligatory conclusions, and necessary connections [...]" (Bartholomae (2001, 516), and I began to recognize that my essay grades no longer hinged on whether or not I thought the professor's comments were legitimate; they hinged on my internal drive and ability "to move toward the condition where [I] didn't need [the community] to [...] write well" (Berlin, 1998, 486).

It almost seems that I got all I needed from the tutor the first time and then I no longer sought help. I know this isn't true, as still sought assistance in the writing center during my doctoral work; however, I feel I have the tools to write an academic paper and my later visits involved planning out and organizing my dissertation chapters.

[38] Another value that was often instilled in me at home was the definition of hard work. My parents do not view graduate school as hard work because, as Janelle L. Wilson (2002) writes, in their world hard work is "defined as involving sweat, body aches, tangible results, a clear beginning point and a clear end point, and the idea that a certain amount of work is equal to a certain amount of money" (27). I use the word "work" a few times in the narrative in terms of how an academic would use it. For example, I say, "I then had an epiphany; the only way I could construct meaning in writing was to find a way to make writing work for me, but in order to reach this level of comfort, I had to, in turn, work at writing" when discussing the point at which I decided that I did need to seek help with academic writing. Again, this use of the word "work" differs from its use in my working-class background, but as a member of both the academic world and working-class world, I now view intellectual work to be just as demanding and equally as rewarding.

[39] The portions of the narrative that affect me the most now, nearly eight years later, are the first few paragraphs because they describe my fear of failing in the academic world while simultaneously letting my parents down. One of the main reasons why I wanted to do well in college was to show my parents that it was the right path for me, and even if they couldn't understand it, they could acknowledge my hard work. I wanted to show them that I could succeed in the middle class, a class that often looked down on them, but I wanted them to know that no matter how much I achieved I would never think less of them. Thus, it is quite evident that I have found the life of a working-class academic quite challenging.

Tools and the Culture of Power

[40] Directly connected to Foucalt's theory of surveillance, the culture of power constrains people as well. Growing up in a working class household, I was always aware that I was not part of the culture of power, but I figured this out on my own and do not remember ever being explicitly told about my place in the world. In "The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People's Children," Lisa Delpit (1988) encourages teachers to be explicit when talking about codes and rules of the culture of power in order to succeed in a capitalistic society. Delpit writes, "If you are not already a participant in the culture of power, being told explicitly the rules of that culture makes acquiring power easier" (283). Making students aware of the inequities of the world and informing them about their own position within this hierarchy is, according to Delpit, a teacher's obligation. Instead of ignoring social stratification, teachers should empower their students by discussing and analyzing the hierarchies explicitly.

[41] It is clear in the narrative that I not only needed to know how to achieve in that genre, but I was also expected to know and practice the writing process on my own. I write:

Did I just miss the lecture on this topic in all of my other English classes? I doubt it. I just don't think I had a grasp on the intricacies of the process. I had failed to synthesize explicit descriptions of the writing process in various lectures from a handful of professors, as well as descriptions of the process found in the introductory chapters of composition texts such as The Simon and Schuster Guide to Writing.

Although I went to school during the process and post-process movements in composition, I really don't remember teachers being explicit about the writing process. My lack of experience with the writing process relates directly to the fact that I wasn't told the rules; I was assigned various writing assignments, but I was never told how to go about completing those assignments. My teachers were not explicit enough for me to learn the rules of power.


[42] In order for to people to move forward in their literacy achievement, they often need to have a literacy sponsor. The writing center tutor had such a profound role in my academic literacy development, she would be considered my literacy sponsor in this situation. Deborah Brandt (1998) sees literacy sponsors as people who are:

Usually richer, more knowledgeable, and more entrenched than the sponsored, sponsors nevertheless enter a reciprocal relationship with those they underwrite. They lend their resources or credibility to the sponsored but also stand to gain benefits from their success, whether by direct repayment or, indirectly, by credit of association. (167)

Sponsors are often the people that Delpit champions; they are within the culture of power, they inform people of the codes needed to succeed within the culture of power and they help prepare people for their entrance into the culture of power.

[43] It is obvious in the narrative that Greta Gilberg was a literacy sponsor to me. Greta was definitely more entrenched in the discourse community, and she offered me suggestions in order to assist my entrance into the academic world. Although I was initially afraid to seek assistance, "I remember my amazement at the ease of her describing the basic steps I should follow." Even though she was an M.A. student and had much more knowledge than I did about the writing process, she was quite humble, yet very explicit about how I should go about writing an academic paper. Greta only gained a salary by helping me; shed helped me because it was her job and because she wanted to make sure I understood pre-writing skills.

[44] The literacy narrative also makes apparent that I was afraid or intimidated by Dr. Cowgill. When I look back, he was likely the most easy-going professor I ever had, but simply knowing that he had a Ph.D. made me self-conscious around him. I knew that he had had years of schooling and that he knew way more about academics and life than I did; I also knew that he was a full professor, which meant that he was highly esteemed and had probably published articles or books. When I pursued an English major, I later learned that he came from a working-class background in Nebraska, and I often wondered if he felt then how I feel now about gaining entrance to and maintaining a presence in both worlds. In this way, I feel as though Dr. Cowgill was also my literacy sponsor: he knew that I needed to learn the rules for the culture of power and he suggested I seek out assistance.


[45] The inclusion of narratives in the college classroom is not only for working-class students; it benefits everyone, including the instructor. As Soliday (1994) suggests, "We can recognize th[e] cultural interdependence by developing a pedagogy that allows students to represent themselves in reference to each other's literacy stories" (522). Recognizing that the genre of literacy narratives is typically a written venture, it is important that college instructors also encourage oral discussion of these narratives as a way for students to empower each other to be agents of change. Mack (2006) asserts:

...working class students need writing assignments in which they can occupy an authoritative position in relation to their topic. If they are to survive at the university, working-class students must construct a position that is not discounted as underprepared or limited to an acceptable imitation of the elite original but a respected, working-class academic identity. (54)

As instructors, it is our duty to honor the cultural capital our students bring with them, and there is no better way to demonstrate this than through providing space for students to leverage their authentic and agentive voices. I am aware that I sometimes walk into my first-year writing classes as Dr. Heidi J. Jones, in a suit jacket and dress pants, but Heidi Jo Jones is right there with me, remembering what it was like to be in first-year writing in 1998, 20 miles up the interstate. I was nervous and afraid, wondering if I would do okay, if I would learn "how to write" and if anyone cared what I had to say.

[46] This circle has an end. I'm teaching "myself," 15 years later, and I think it's simultaneously glorious and terrifying.

Appendix A

Moving from Apprehension to Comfort: My Development as a Writer

[i] After briskly packing up his American Literature anthology, Dr. Kent Cowgill juggled a tattered blue binder in one hand and a half-empty coffee mug in the other, all the while holding a meaningful, yet hushed conversation with a bewildered student who just received her first essay grade. I sat at my desk, baffled at the garish red C- written across the top of my Twain essay. I've never gotten anything lower than a B in my entire life. My mom is going to kill me. Should I talk to him? What if he thinks I'm stupid? Nah, I'll just wait until next class.

[ii] I stood up, collected what remained of my belongings and my spirit, and I headed toward the hallway. I was completely caught off guard and "overwhelmed by copious red marks (Lindemann, 2001, 15). Dr. Cowgill, implicitly hushing my classmate, said, "Heidi, do you have a minute?" Whoa, he knows my name? "Yeah, I'll wait in the hallway" I replied, barely recognizing my own voice through its wavering tones. Does he know my name solely because my essay was horrible? He didn't address the other girl by her first name. This must be bad.

[iii] Contemplating a great escape, I turned to leave when Dr. Cowgill asked me to step back into the classroom so we could talk about my essay. He started by saying, "I think you had a lot of good points in the essay, Heidi. I was impressed with your understanding of the themes of the work. The major problem with your essay is that your thesis statement is the last sentence of the entire paper." What? Why is this all of a sudden a problem? "Oh, did I really?" I replied, not knowing how to react to his statement. He took my essay and flipped to the last page and read the last sentence aloud: "Finally, it can be said that Mark Twain uses symbolism to convey the idea that the river is freedom, while the land represents slavery. Heidi, that is the first time in the entire essay that you explicitly stated what you were getting at; this sentence should be in the first paragraph of the essay." What do I say now? "Uh, sorry about that" I replied in a confused tone. "I must have forgotten to write it earlier." Dr. Cowgill took a step back and said, "Was it really a mistake, or are you struggling with organizing your thoughts?" Wow, he hit the nail on the head. I didn't answer his question. He suggested I take my essay to the campus writing center and ask them to help me with pre-writing and thesis formation. I walked out of the classroom in tears, not knowing if I should bother consulting a tutor or if I could just sit down and decipher the problem on my own.

[iv] This experience caused me to question my place in the academic writing world. I had somehow made it to my second year of college without knowing or acknowledging the writing process, specifically how to organize my ideas in the form of a thesis statement. Did I just miss the lecture on this topic in all of my other English classes? I doubt it. I just don't think I had a grasp on the intricacies of the process. I had failed to synthesize explicit descriptions of the writing process in various lectures from a handful of professors, as well as descriptions of the process found in the introductory chapters of composition texts, such as The Simon and Schuster Guide to Writing. Within its first few pages, this text describes the writing process as "a series of forward and backward movements between the writer's ideas and the written text" (Harris, 1997, 11). This may be true, but while this particular section describes the writing process as a lengthy process, the next section seems to convey a message that the entire process has the potential to be completed with the snap of the fingers. In fact, it states "when Kerry read the new draft [...] he realized that in this revision he had improved his essay 100%" (Harris, 14). It seems that perhaps even scholars compiling a composition textbook waver in their declaration of the ease and/or difficulty of the writing process. The idea of instant and drastic improvement as a possibility for a majority of beginning writers seems misleading, and in fact, it is improbable based on my own experience.

[v] At the time, I hoped my writing problem could be fixed instantaneously, but today, as a graduate student in an MA Literature and Language program, I realize this type of immediate solution rarely works in terms of internalizing the method by which meaning evolves. In fact, I have found solace in Lindemann (2001), who believes the writing process "involves making choices, posing questions, recording and reviewing possible solutions to the writing problem, and eventually, after many tentative formulations, creating the meaning we intended to convey about our subject" (21). This I had not done. I had simply sat down at my good ol' HP Pavillion with a mug of coffee, typed one draft, breezed through spell check and printed the essay. I did not participate in the writing process; in fact, I didn't value the writing process. And, looking back, I know I wasn't alone. Mary Mortimore Dossin (2000), an experienced composition instructor believes "many students have not yet realized that good writing requires time, care and reflection" (46). I believe, as a novice writer, I put in a good amount of time and care in drafting, but I fell short on the last step, reflection. I believe my writing eventually progressed because I was able to step back from my ideas and synthesize the information before I felt completely satisfied with the final product.

[vi] In addition to the idea of writing as engagement, perhaps an issue of equal or greater concern is how a student reacts to the instructor's comments and the implications this reaction has on a student's view of academic writing. So what? What does Dr. Cowgill know anyway? I plunked down on my bed and reexamined Dr. Cowgill's comments. Obviously I was not one who handled criticism well. Berlin (1988) believes improvement comes only after a student recognizes that he/she "[...] ‘must hear the contradictory counsel of his readers, so that he learns when to ignore his teachers and his peers, listening to himself after evaluation what has been said about his writing and considering what he can do to make it work" (486). I agree with Berlin (1988), and after rereading Dr. Cowgill's main points, I realized that, in fact, I agreed with him as well. I then had an epiphany; the only way I could construct meaning in writing was to find a way to make writing work for me, but in order to reach this level of comfort, I had to, in turn, work at writing.

[vii] I took Dr. Cowgill's advice, as well as the advice of my conscience, and signed up for a tutoring session with Greta Gilberg at the WSU Writing Center. It was here that I learned the art of pre-writing. My writing toolbox was growing, along with my confidence. I remember my amazement at the ease of her describing the basic steps I should follow. The pre-writing strategies made sense, and they could be tailored to suit my interests and needs. I was learning to "extend [myself] into the commonplaces, set phrases, rituals, gestures, habits of mind, tricks of persuasion, obligatory conclusions, and necessary connections [...]'" (Bartholomae, 2001, 516), and I began to recognize that my essay grades no longer hinged on whether or not I thought the professor's comments were legitimate; they hinged on my internal drive and ability "to move toward the condition where [I] didn't need [the community] to [...] write well" (Berlin, 1988, 486).


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