Issue 35, Final Fringe

Outsiders Within: Resolving Working-Class Experience within the Privileged Classroom

by Jaffney Roode Issue 13 12.08.2007

The English classroom is a space where students from across the social spectrum are socialized and cultivated to become practitioners of Standard Written English (SWE), but how can the language of the working class be reconciled with the language of the classroom? This subject is of personal interest to me despite my ambiguous place in the working-class world; neither of my parents maintained labor jobs during my childhood (my father is disabled and unemployed; my mother worked “under the table” jobs periodically). Perhaps it is most appropriate to say that I grew up in poverty because my family survived on welfare benefits. Calling myself working class is a loaded gun because many working-class people may see me as simply poor since my family had no marketable labors skills or experience of which to speak. So even though I sometimes call myself a working-class student, do I actually have the right to this label? Or would it benefit me to say once and for all that I’m poor? I will use “working-class” in this essay to refer to people who are/have been labor employees, the indigent, or the dependents of the aforementioned.

Jim Gee discusses this friction between home and school discourses in his essay “What is Literacy?” According to Gee, “discourses are intimately related to the distribution of social power and hierarchical structure in society,” (53). Because I was raised in a working-class home, I was already relatively removed from the public sphere of authority and success. In order to gain access to this realm of power I had to acquire a secondary discourse—that of the academy. While all students have a primary discourse acquired through their family or guardians, “it is of course a great advantage when the secondary discourse is compatible with your primary one,” (56). Privilege discourse favors the privileged, so middle- and upper-class students are instantly more prepared for higher education.

For the most part, my family exists in an insular world dominated by the familial and domestic spheres. Their (our) primary discourse is one of oral tradition and social joviality, accompanied by a charming Boston accent. However, I have had far greater opportunities to acquire secondary discourses. For example, while my older sister was homeschooled, I attended a predominantly white, middle-class high school. I had part-time jobs throughout my teenage years, participated in civic and art groups, and eventually went on to Emerson College, a prestigious communications and performing arts private college. It was in this environment of assumed homogeneity that I quickly shed my Boston accent and assimilated into the communication styles of the upper-middle-class students around me.

At Emerson, uniqueness and creativity are highly valued—that is, if your self-expression reaffirmed middle-class values and expectations. We could all be as artsy, irreverent, talkative, and creative as we wanted, so long as we maintained the illusion that we were all the same by having parents who expected us to go to college, who paid our rent, who taught us how to be confident, cultured, communicative, and above all marketable. Being a quick learner, I easily figured out how to pass as middle class. I, too, complained of being “poor” (college student poor, not perpetually poor), molded my speech to reflect and accommodate those around me, and easily made friends with students and professors. It was a matter of academic and social survival. What I didn’t know then was that my experience was common, textbook even, among students from non-dominant discourses.

Basil Bernstein coined the terms “restricted” and “elaborated” to differentiate the discourses of working-class and middle-class people. According to Bernstein, restricted code is that which is context bound—language that expresses something in a precise time and at a certain place. Elaborated language, the mode of the middle class, is that which can be parlayed by generalities (Kutz & Roskelly). Graceful handling of generalities is, of course, perfectly suited for tackling academic dilemmas. If you have to write a paper on health care policy, are you going to write about how your aunt lost her benefits at her job or about how Canada and the U.S. differ in their social policies? Most professors would prefer you choose the latter approach in order to show your synthesis of ideas, reading, and research. What seems obvious to the professor may not be obvious to the student. Despite the flaws of Bernstein’s model (for one thing, the terminology clearly devalues working class discourse), there is some merit to his ideas. Bernstein’s model is helpful in that it shows how educational institutions inherently favor middle-class discourse. Therefore middle- and upper-class students already come to school with a privileged stance. According to Kutz and Roskelly, Bernstein’s approach is valuable in that “schools provided, in Bernstein’s terms, an elaboration or extension of social identity for the middle-class child, while they forced a change in social identity for the working-class child,” (60). That is, it’s not simply that poor students have a more difficult time in mainstream schools, but that they are made to feel shame for their self-expression, values, and lifestyles. The perpetuation and internalization of this shame leads many students to drop out or become reticent.

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Jaffney Roode

Jaffney Roode

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Jaffney Roode is working towards an M.A. in literature at UMass Boston. Her interests include making simple things complicated, reading South African literature, watching Roseanne, and ensuring that academia is liberating and fun.