Freshman College Courses as Class/Cultural Negotiation

Mary Ball Howkins
Professor of Art

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Teaching a core curriculum course to a mixed group of first and second generation college freshman has led me to consider ways in which I might support and challenge those students in their initial negotiation of academic culture and discourse, and to encourage them to see academia as a unique subculture with potential limitations in its authority. My goal is to empower them in negotiating their class and cultural relation to academic discourse and principles. I hope to open a space for them to dispute conventional academic borders and encourage them to raise questions openly or privately about their relation to academic authority. I also hope to encourage resistance to pedagogical practices that prevent them from thinking for themselves or from assuming autonomy in the classroom--for example, where an instructor only lectures at them rather than dialogues with them. At root is my assumption that public education is a form of cultural politics reflecting the power relations of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, etc., in society at large, and my belief that students must be empowered to struggle against these systems and to bring their own knowledge and experience to share in classroom dialogue. The theoretical roots of this approach go back to Paolo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970), through writings of Pierre Bourdieu, Alice Miller, Jean Anyon and others, and, in my case, to grass roots discussions during political protests at Columbia University where I was a graduate student in 1968, and continuing discussions at Columbia in both New York and Paris in subsequent years.

I also have wanted to better understand the specific learning styles of first generation students so that I may empower them in a freshman course where they encounter college level academic discourse for the first time, with varying degrees of culture shock. Beyond guiding all my students toward better analytical and writing skills, I want to make them aware of some of the reasons that their skills may not be college-ready and encourage awareness of ideologies in society and academia, ideologies that may have stereotyped and disadvantaged them as learners. America's public conversation about the realities of gender and race are evolving, but public conversation about social class is minimal. As North Americans we tend to think of ourselves as unburdened by class distinctions and of class as essentially antithetical to democratic values , and this fact contributes to a pressing need for such conversation at the college level. If students are to be empowered in their encounter with academic discourse, that discourse must be demystified, revealed for the power relations that inform it. Cultural markers of social class vary depending on a person's gender, ethnicity, religious heritage, and other social factors, making conversations about class complex. No doubt the exercise I have devised and included below might be well placed in a summer, new-student orientation, along with discussions of diversity, developing study skills and the like, yet absence of class discussion in academia leaves it, at this moment, in faculty hands.

In looking beyond educational theory to recent research on learning styles of baccalaureate level working class students, Barbara Jensen has published troubling information about first generation college students' struggles to adapt to academia. She reported that first generation students can experience a "cognitive dissonance," a psychological chasm between their pre-college identities and the academic identity into which an undergraduate education draws them. Jensen observed "emotional and mental confusion. Common emotional reactions include anger, shame, sorrow (loss), 'imposter syndrome' and substance abuse." This chasm, and varying student responses to it, should compel college teachers to construct a productive and positive academic identity from the first semester of an undergraduate's education. In an effort to address this culture shock, researchers like Nancy Mack have drawn attention to the multiple identities experienced by students--for example, African American, white working-class, new immigrant populations and female, and the need to support them in their writing and content courses.

Rather than launching directly into academic subject matter, and what may seem an alien oppressive discourse, students can be made aware of the cultural capital and class-based values that they bring to the college classroom and to value that knowledge and perspective. First generation students can begin to negotiate a positive academic identity when educators acknowledge class-coded conditions and make students aware of the same: the political nature of academia in producing authority and knowledge, the role of teaching faculty as not simply transmitters of information but as producers of power in knowledge, and the diverse class status and class values of students themselves.

Working class students may emerge from an educational and family background that emphasizes passivity in the K-12 classroom, and a mechanical learning that did not invite them to assertively question or interpret meaning, or to draw their own conclusions about material studied. K through 12 education may have tracked them toward a more practical, rather than professional curriculum (for example, toward a clerical or automotive training rather than an advanced legal or medical education). Jean Anyon noted this "hidden curriculum" in elementary schools in 1980. Alice Miller began a parallel examination of destructive parental and institutional educations practices from a psychological standpoint in 1979 with the publication of The Drama of the Gifted Child.

Negotiation is a reality for all students in an unfamiliar baccalaureate setting. When they enroll in a college degree program they face various kinds of personal/classroom negotiation. They must come to terms with the professor's "positionality," a term derived from feminist scholarship. Positionality can be determined by a professor's race, class, gender, ethnicity, religion, age, sexual orientation, language and physical ability: Students must negotiate an instructor's methodological approach to a field, his/her personal teaching style, methods of evaluating student writing and other class work. In my field of art history, for example, much material under academic scrutiny (painting, sculpture, and architecture) specifically addresses the white male heterosexual elite of Euro-American Christian origin, as do many contemporary images, and much academic research. Minority students must come to terms not only with my own interpretations, but with how to view the elite traditions that dominate a typical course in the history of European or American art, traditions in which most artists have, until recently, exclusively addressed a white audience. Women students must likewise negotiate how to view and receive art that over centuries specifically, and often exclusively, has addressed a male population and subjected the representation of women to the male "gaze."

It is important in my mind that teachers become aware of their own class allegiance, and the values that are associated with that class. Some college faculty may be "straddlers," continuously negotiating between working class origins and middle class professional status in their personal and professional lives. A straddler status may sensitize a faculty member to obstacles to student learning. Faculty who are "straddlers" may be in an enviable position to identify with the values of both classes. Others must carve out an understanding of class difference and the differing needs of students on our own.

Recent research reveals that working class students are more likely to defer to authority than middle class students and that that deference can constitute an on-going obstacle to learning and to critical thinking. What I have interpreted in the past as shyness on the part of many students during class discussion and problem solving could be a learned response to an authoritarian home life and public school teaching practice, in addition to what many have observed as gendered practice where young women have been schooled in family or institutions to be silent and to undervalue their contributions. In view of reluctance to participate in classroom discussion I open a conversation at the beginning of the semester about home and school support, or lack of it, in relation to how comfortable students feel about contributing to class discussions, about thinking about material under examination, with a goal of dispelling some reluctance.

The Excercise

Early in the semester I have begun to present students with a sheet outlining two sets of class values, based on research by Barbara Jensen, one working-class and one middle-class (others may find different sets of values more useful), questions about students' perception of their individual levels of writing and oral skills, and their commitment to the use of Standard ('academic") English. In order to avoid demeaning students for arriving at academia's doorstep without some of the skills that baccalaureate faculty expect, I encourage them to take stock of their skills, to voice challenges they might face in college classrooms, and discuss the services on campus they may take advantage of to improve. I also suggest potential reasons in their backgrounds for not having developed good writing or oral skills, and ask them to share what they will about specific family, school- or personality-based impediments to developing those skills. I do so without identifying either set as characterizing one or the other class (see Figure 1), in part because class values can be complicated by factors related to allegiance to other marginalized groups, and not by any means "pure." I use these class values as a door to classroom discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of each class derivation, and the educational advantages that students of either group may have. Rather than mentioning social class when I pass out the sheets, I tell students that I want them to take stock of the skills, potential and goals that they bring with them to their first year of college. I outline a first set of values, ones that Jensen has identified as working-class, as based on strong community and family ties, focused on character rather than achievement, and indifferent or antagonistic toward status. A working adult characterized by this value set may choose to reside in his/her community of origin, where ties are continuing and vigorous. The second set of values, listed on the right hand side, characterize those that Jensen identifies as achievement-oriented, individualistic, status seeking and cosmopolitan. A person with these values may be willing to relocate across the country, or perhaps out of the country, for desirable work opportunities and professional success. I explain that following professional ambitions into another state, or another country, can potentially weaken a person's fundamental connection to family and community of origin. I place working class values first on the left in order to enhance the worth and significance of working class values for those who might feel out of place as self-conscious or disadvantaged learners.

I avoid class designations on the sheet first to avoid a hierarchical evaluation of either class category and to affirm each one as simply a different life condition and culture. I also hope to counteract the assumption that middle class values have more weight, intelligence, appeal, or moral standing, so that students who identify with this first grouping can claim them without shame or fear of exposure. I want to undermine any potential stigma in working-class status. Stigmas, or stereotypes, have been identified as being a personal moral failure for not having moved up into the middle class, as being lazy, intellectually inadequate, reactionary in politics and belief, or as having poor taste.

In relation to the topics at the head of sheet one, I tell students that some will feel relatively at home in a college classroom in terms of the type of reading, formal academic language, writing, analytical thinking skills and classroom dialogue. Others will feel less so, but will be encouraged to find their own voice and assume significant authority in the classroom. I emphasize, in the tradition of Freire, that participating in classroom dialogue is a "no-risk" affair, that they can say nothing that will be judged "wrong," but can share information, perspective, interpretation and ideas that will propel dialogue along to interesting junctures. I claim no exclusive monopoly of knowledge and hope that they will illuminate aspects of visual images and historical contexts for us all. To confirm student contributions and authority in the classroom I adopt their volunteered vocabulary and interpretations whenever possible and useful, although I realize this may be less feasible in some academic fields where terminology may be more technical and memorization of factual material more critical. This kind of affirmation can be transformative, setting students on a path to greater confidence in the knowledge and skills that they bring with them to classroom dialogue, and potentially open them to significant, in-depth learning.

Research conducted by scholars and teachers of writing composition on ways to value the diverse forms of English that students bring to the college classroom has also contributed to this section as well as to the next. I ask students to sort out for themselves individually what classroom negotiation could mean, and outline the following possibilities in as neutral a fashion as possible:

  1. A temporary adjustment to and later dismissal of Standard English for informal types or dialects upon graduation
  2. An assimilation of some Standard English for use in post-graduation years
  3. An intermingling of Standard English and spoken informal English
  4. A substantial shift into Standard English during college and post graduation years
  5. A rejection of informal English for Standard English through graduate education
I list the least life-changing first in the series, hoping to reduce the conflict of values that may ensue in the negotiation of an academic identity, and to alert students to the fact that the academic-identified values can exist in a range of possible negotiations, that academia is a unique subculture.

In my discussion I eventually identify the second set of cultural values as those more characteristic of academia. Here I identify academia's efforts to standardize an approved use of language in oral delivery and in writing, in its emphasis on intellectual honesty and rigor, use of logic, cultural and historical knowledge, scientific methods, etc., and in its emphasis on achievement measured in a grading system.

Perhaps as a gauge of the safety that students feel in response to my listing of cultural values without identifying class headings, discussion is animated, with students enthusiastically volunteering to share their particular versions of the values they hold. Individual students, who later in the semester are more reticent to volunteer, seem pleased to identify values and goals without self-censorship.

I designed a second sheet handed out immediately following discussion (see Figure 2) simply to gauge students' identification with either the first or second set of values as dominant in their perception, with neither as dominant, or with one set as dominant along with certain characteristics from the other set. The questions on the sheet also ask whether they would be willing to pursue a job opportunity outside of Rhode Island, or outside of New England, giving them the option of saying "yes," "no," or "unsure." My intention is not so much to gain insight into students' class values, or into the beginnings of their individual construction of an academic identity, but to make them think in greater depth about the values outlined on the first sheet, as well as their own, if different or intermingling the two sets. I hope to raise their awareness of the values with which they define themselves and to support that value allegiance in whatever ways I can--in this case by valuing all class indicators equally.

In the end Jensen's neat bifurcation of working and middle class values did not hold up when polling students. This may indicate a weakness in her characterizations, recent shifts in class structure, the specific demographics of Rhode Island, the mix of liberal arts and professional programs at the college, a gap between student outcomes and student perceptions of themselves, overlapping of other complicating issues of social and political marginalization, or all or some, or other factors of which I am not aware. I am not equipped as a social scientist to sort this out. A majority of my 31 students, when first guiding this discussion, identified with the more individualistic, achievement-oriented goals and with hoping to make a positive human impact through work, including those who primarily identified with the set associated by Jensen with working class values. A majority also believed that his or her contribution post-graduation would be useful in positive human terms. Seven of the 31 students in the class couldn't decide whether set one or set two defined them, perceiving each grouping as more or less relevant to them. Moreover, over one half (7 of 12) students who clearly identified with middle class values and the pursuit of meaningful work outside the region, claimed a strong attachment to family or community. It remains to be seen whether or not these students would actually relocate outside Rhode Island or New England post-graduation.


Student enthusiasm for this exercise has encouraged me to retain it in the future as a door to an open discussion, despite any drawbacks. It can serve as a basic introduction to academia, its traditional values, and the variety of ways to negotiate an identity through the years of college, in addition to a way to encourage and support students of different class backgrounds. The term "individualistic" in Cultural Values 2 needs some specific verbal definition by me, as a willingness to move away from Rhode Island for meaningful work, rather than what might be understood as cultivating character, individual tastes or preferences. I have already modified these value lists somewhat to make them student-friendly, rather than couched in the scholar-friendly language of their original publication.

As indicated earlier, my ultimate goal in this freshman exercise is not to closely examine students' class affiliations or attitudes. It is to support students via a valuing of all students' class and cultural values, support them by not dragging them into academic protocol by hook or by crook. Rather it is to give them the opportunity to choose the direction their academic life and identity will take, whether it's a temporary identity, necessary to survive and acquire a more academic language or an enduring one, and to what degree. The process will provide them with a model of learning that does not demean them for arriving at academia's doorstep without some of the skills that faculty hope for or expect. In the long run, this kind of exercise would seem to fit most appropriately in a summer or fall freshman orientation session aimed at preparing students for college life, or in a College Course 101, to be taken during the first semester and designed to orient first and later generation students. Faculty and orientation staff may not give students the opportunity currently to express their ideas and concerns in their own "voices," or tacitly or overtly acknowledge divergence of class values and learning habits, yet students in freshman courses deserve fundamental and early support in the process of constructing a positive academic identity.

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Page last updated: Tuesday, September 27, 2011