Recent Scholarship on Contingency: “Freshman Composition as a Precariat Enterprise” (James Rushing Daniel) in College English

Daniel, James Rushing. “Freshman Composition as a Precariat Enterprise.” College English, vol. 80, no. 1, 2017, pp. 63-85.

James Rushing Daniel opens his article with a reference to the role of social class in Composition’s identity. In particular, he notes that Lynn Z. Bloom theorizes Composition’s middle class identity (63), even as other scholars question the homogeneity of that identity because of its wildly divergent incomes (p. 64). Daniel acknowledges the increasing use of the terms “precarity” and “the precariat” because they “emphasize the dislocations and uncertainties faced by those relegated from stable, salaried labor” (64). That is, precarity reflects “individuals’ estrangement from secure, fairly remunerated forms of work” (64).

Daniel, a full-time, contingent faculty member, turns to precarity as a way to reimagine social class in Composition’s identity (65). He suggests that the shared precarity of instructors with other precariously employed students has the potential for increasing the sense of “solidarity” across teacher/student divides (65). Finally, Daniel envisions the shared experience of precarity as a way to create an inclusive pedagogy that combats “right-wing populism” (65).

He divides the body of his essay into four parts, which I will briefly describe below:

  • “The New Economy and Precariat Life” (pp. 65-68)
  • “Composition and the Challenge to Social Class” (68-76)
  • “Commonality, Solidarity, and Retention” (pp. 76-78)
  • “Xenophobic Populism and Critical Resistance” (pp. 78-81)

“The New Economy and Precariat Life” (pp. 65-68)

In this section, Daniel provides an overview of precarity, as originally theorized by sociologists and political scientists. Daniel is interested in the potential for precarity to serve as a unifying force for class consciousness (p. 67).

“Composition and the Challenge to Social Class” (68-76)

In this section, Daniel shows how recent Composition scholarship parallels the concerns of scholarship devoted to precarity. He identifies four dominant strands of scholarship devoted to class among Composition scholars. One strand of class consciousness deemphasizes economic concerns as the central factor in understanding class, “favor[ing] discursive approaches to social class” (69) that illustrate “power relations in language” (70). This overview focuses on the work of Richard Ohmann and James Thomas Zebroski.

Another strand of scholarship on class focuses on the “the role of economic challenges facing students and faculty alike” (70). Here, Daniel describes the work of Tony Scott and Mark Bousquet, who are both concerned with the way that writing programs and universities reproduce economic inequality through exploitative work practices that “casualize” both “instructors and students” (71).

A third strand of scholarship on class seeks to break down class barriers that divide different types of higher education institutions and the denizens of those institutions (71-73)—see the work of John Tassoni, as well as Min-Zhan Lu and Bruce Horner. Most pertinent for Daniel is the work of Isabell Lorey, who suggests that the precariat across various strata “share in economic marginalization and are capable of recognizing this in one another” (73).

A fourth strand of scholarship addresses the class conflict between Writing Program Administrators (WPA) and contingent faculty, as represented by Donna Strickland’s and Ann Larson’s disagreement on the level of exploitative behavior that WPAs reproduce in administering Composition programs (74-75).

For Daniel, the theory of precarity calls attention to the shared precarity of all faculty (76)—he has in mind here his own status as a contingent WPA (75). The shared precarity across ranks “promotes the flattening of our professional hierarchies” (76), which could “encourage established faculty to lobby” on behalf of contingent faculty (76).

“Commonality, Solidarity, and Retention” (pp. 76-78)

As the title of this section suggests, Daniel believes that creating shared identities between disparate faculty and students across campus can increase solidarity among parties that may have hitherto sought their groups’ interests over others (76-77). He argues that the recognition of shared precarity encourages greater efforts “to oppose forms of prejudice and marginalization” (78).

“Xenophobic Populism and Critical Resistance” (pp. 78-81)

In this section, Daniel calls for an increased awareness of a precariat identity among faculty that will encourage a “precariat pedagogy” that critiques “right-wing populism” (78-79). He argues that precariat pedagogy can “provide students with critical frameworks” that can combat “sexist, ableist, and racialist rhetorics” (79-80). He recognizes the risk this activist-oriented pedagogy holds to precariously employed faculty (81).

Final Thoughts

Daniel’s article prompted me to look further into some of the scholarship on precarity. Guy Standing’s work on precarity was particularly instructive. In Standing’s analysis, precarity is one of seven groups in the “global class structure” (“The Precariat and Class Struggle” 1). Standing offers a concise explanation of the seven groups in an article from Working-Class Perspectives:

  1. the plutocracy: have “economic and political power … [with] no responsibility to any nation state” (“The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class,” par. 4)
  2. the elite: i.e., patrimonial capitalists (par. 5)
  3. the salariat: have “employment security, pensions, paid holidays, and other non-wage perks” (par. 5)
  4. the proficians: “project-oriented, self-entrepreneurs, not seeking employment security” (par. 6)
  5. the proletariat: “the old core of the working class” (“Meet the Precariat,” par. 6)
  6. the precariat: (“The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class,” par. 8)
  7. the lumpen-proletariat: “victims eking out an existence in the streets, sad souls going to an early death” (par. 9)

Of particular interest is the “salariat.” Within the context of higher education, the salariat most closely relates to tenured faculty, yet no mention of the salariat appears in the article. Daniel envisions tenured faculty and the precariat identifying with one another through shared self-interest, yet Standing worries about “lump[ing] the salariat with others below them in one class” (“The Precariat and Class Struggle” 2). In other words, Standing questions the extent to which the salariat can put aside their own self-interest in favor of improving life for the precariat (2).

Though I note these complications, I acknowledge that Daniel’s vision of precarity as a shared unifying character is a provocative idea that seems compelling, given the increased reliance on contingent labor and the continuing erosion of tenure in the neoliberal university. His overview of the scholarship on precarity and his portrayal of the parallels of Composition scholarship to scholarship on precarity are particularly valuable resources for the study of contingency in higher education.

Works Cited

Standing, Guy. “Meet the Precariat, the New Global Class Fuelling the Rise of Populism.” World Economic Forum, 09 Nov 2016, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/11/precariat-global-class-rise-of-populism/. Accessed 29 January 2018

—. “The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class.” Working-Class Perspectives, 27 October 2014, https://workingclassstudies.wordpress.com/2014/10/27/the-precariat-the-new-dangerous-class/. Accessed 29 January 2018.

—. “The Precariat and Class Struggle.” 2014. Guy Standing, n.d., http://www.guystanding.com/files/documents/Precariat_and_Class_Struggle_final_English.pdf. Accessed 29 January 2018.

 

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