Reviewed by Lauren Rae Hall, University of Pittsburgh (LRaeHall@gmail.com)
Chair: Sarah Perrault, University of California Davis
Kelly Ritter, University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, "Mass Literacies, Mass Inculcation: From Mental Hygiene Films to MOOCs"
M. Karen Powers, Kent State University at Tuscarawas, OH, "’Brains and Brawn’: The Humanities, Differential Tuition, and the Historical Vocationalism of the Working Class"
Amy Lueck, University of Louisville, KY, "The Mind and Body of Higher Learning: Tracing the Institutional Location of (Gendered) Manual Training in Nineteenth-Century High Schools"
One of the strange delights (and frustrations) of attending any conference is witnessing the way panels get cobbled together from individual proposals. Often, there’s a kind of imbalance, a range of topics or even presentation styles that don’t quite mesh or that elicit very different questions. They might all, for example, have something marginally to do with feminist rhetorics, but one might be on a nineteenth-century woman rhetorician, another on the use of Cheryl Glenn’s work in a graduate writing seminar, and the final a summary of ethnographic work with queer activists. Less curious audience members quietly wander in and out, and the rest of us listen intently for those ideas or sources that are relevant to our own pet projects.
Impressively, this dynamic was completely absent from "Higher Learning and Historical Class Bifurcations," a Thursday afternoon panel that featured Kelly Ritter, M. Karen Powers, and Amy Lueck. Although each presenter offered a different argument and set of historical materials, the panel was as cohesive as it was thoughtful. There were 21 onlookers and listeners to impress, and it says a lot that the question-and-answer portion became lively aisle conversations as soon as the panel ended at 1:30 pm.
Kelly Ritter, current editor of College English and Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, began the session with a caveat. Her talk, entitled "Mass Literacies, Mass Inculcation: From Mental Hygiene Films to MOOCs" might elicit the following questions: Does she hate the Internet? Does she think college is a bad thing? "No" and "no," she pre-emptively assured the audience. As she explained, her ultimate goal was to mine these older attempts at mass instruction for assumptions about literacy and class that could be similarly undergirding our contemporary mass instruction methods. "We’re increasingly moving toward a pedagogical model that prioritizes reach over individual student needs," she stated. The work of "historical recovery with recommended applications" is much needed.
Ritter showed clips from a handful of films. Two particularly amusing mid-century examples, Snap Out of It! (Emotional Balance) (1951) and Writing Better Social Letters (1951) both illustrate the ways that class-based education has been tethered to academic instruction. There are, as Ritter explained, implicit and explicit behaviors related to literacy instruction that also signal status and potential. She paralleled these explicit enactments with current-traditional handbooks. Ritter quickly illustrated related present-day concerns and solutions, screening selections from MOOC instructional writing videos and pointing audience members to others, including Ted Blake’s and Denise Comer’s first-year writing MOOCs. Ritter was not dismissive of either the historical films or the more current examples, but instead asked audience members to consider the ways literacy instruction is often inculcated with assumptions about class.
In M. Karen Powers’s "‘Brains and Brawn’: The Humanities, Differential Tuition, and the Historical Vocationalism of the Working Class," she criticized recent moves to "vocationalize" higher education by pairing examples of contemporary "work" rhetoric with early-twentieth-century discourse about vocational education. Powers, Associate Professor of English at Kent State University at Tuscarawas, began her presentation by pointing to proposals for "differential tuition," or the subsidizing of tuition for students who choose "strategic" STEM majors. As Powers described, these measures incentivize working-class students to choose majors outside the liberal arts, effectively restricting their engagement with the humanities and implicitly making an argument about the purpose of higher education for working-class students. One such proposal, by Florida Governor Rick Scott, has received especial attention as an efficient way to build a stronger workforce. And, as Powers described, in some, largely rural, school districts in Ohio, students can now be legally tracked into vocational training as early as junior high. That the course for working-class students is set so early and so emphatically at so many levels should be cause for concern for English instructors, as she emphasized. Surveying historical materials like 1910s school bulletins that highlight the "dignity of work" over instruction in the liberal arts, Powers drew attention to the ways many of our institutions have abandoned the democratic civic ideas that marked, for example, the Open Admissions movement in the 1960s in favor of a much earlier class-based hierarchy. Powers’ presentation was a thorough and convincing argument for the political importance of supporting students’ broad exposure and choice in higher education.
Amy Lueck, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Louisville, similarly took up themes of brain and brawn in the final presentation, "The Mind and Body of Higher Learning: Tracing the Institutional Location of (Gendered) Manual Training in Nineteenth-Century High Schools." Lueck began with a fascinating narrative about the mid-nineteenth-century creation and division of Louisville’s Male and Female High Schools. By the 1870s, Male High School had extracted a manual track from its earlier, more holistic curriculum and merged this program with Female High School. This "manual training" initially began as a set of experiential, student-centered courses but quickly became the site of developing gendered, classed distinctions between body and mind. As the program came to highlight "technical, scientific, and industrial knowledge" for certain learners, it also marked the classical education program as "universally ungendered" and as a privileged space for privileged students. For Lueck, this narrative suggests a different way of understanding both classical education and manual training (a kind of forerunner for vocational education) as complexly embedded in gender and class politics. By attending to this very specific history, Lueck demonstrated the importance of looking at local histories as not just exemplars of larger historical patterns but as sites of nuance and complexity.
Although slightly different in subject matter and approach, these three presentations cohered in their incredible care for their source materials and for the insightful ways they suggest we might consider how students, past and present, are implicitly and explicitly instructed and classed.