A Taste for Language

An academic autobiography that's not at all self-centered? Scott McLemee looks into an interesting composition.

February 17, 2010

Yogi Berra is supposed to have said that people shouldn't write their autobiographies while they're still alive. Anyone who reads very many academic autobiographies will appreciate the sentiment. We have enough accounts, thanks, of how the path to tenure in the English department at Duke University was lit up by certain profound early life experiences. (The route now seems exceptionally well-mapped for one that not many people get to travel.)

But an exception might be made a recent volume called A Taste for Language: Literacy, Class, and English Studies by James Ray Watkins, Jr., published by Southern Illinois University Press. It is not the work of an academic celebrity. I doubt anyone will turn to it for career advice; it doesn't offer any. But as a study of the examined life, it has its lessons.

The author is an online educator for the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins University. He runs a blog called Writing in the Wild. So one learns from the back cover. But the lesson really starts with a photograph across from the title page. It shows the author's father and was taken circa 1944. He is wearing a tie and his hair is well-combed. The pose suggests that the portrait might be of a young soldier, taken as a memento for his parents -- except that he looks as if he may not yet be old enough to shave.

And it turns out all of this is true. The son of a tenant farmer in Mississippi, Watkins Sr. enlisted in the army at the age of 16. He claimed to be older, of course, and to have graduated high school, although his formal education actually ended in the fourth grade.

Thanks to the GI Bill, the adolescent tank-commander in that photograph later went to night school to get his equivalency degree, then attended Louisiana State University. This prepared him for a successful career as a utilities analyst for the city of Houston. He died in the early 1980s, not long after the author began his own higher education.

"No one in his immediate family had attended school much beyond the middle- or high-school level," writes Watkins Jr.. "His family, my mother tells me, saw college as a kind of indulgence and thought that any young man could better spend his time earning a living. Before he entered LSU, then, it is likely that my father had only the roughest approximation of what a university education might entail.... My father left college with more than professional skills; he graduated with a larger sense of the purposes of education that made it imperative for his children as well."

This is a story of upward mobility, then, with economic security as its goal. But that is not all that was transmitted from father to son. To go from seeing education as a needless luxury to regarding it as an urgent necessity for one's children involves a deep change of ethos. Watkins tries to reconstruct this process through a close reading of any material he can find from his father's education -- in particular the textbooks for his courses on composition and literature at LSU during the late 1940, which left him with the skills needed to produce the sort of expository prose required in the professional workplace.

As it happened, the English department at LSU was also then an epicenter of the New Criticism, whose practitioners tried to teach students to read literary works with an eye to how their language worked. "It seems reasonable to assume that my father's lack of previous education made the inculcation of this sensibility difficult at best....The academic triumph of New Critical literary education in the English department had strict limits, clearly marked in my father's transcript."

But the effort had its effect, even so. It meant that Watkins Sr. could recognize that there might be something worthwhile about the ability to read for pleasure. And so it is that -- two generations after functional literacy was the family norm, but anything beyond it regarded with misgivings -- the author could end up writing a master's thesis on Paul de Man, getting a Ph.D., and teaching at various institutions.

This, then, is not an academic autobiography so much as an educational genealogy. The author is tracing back to their sources the conditions of possibility for his own existence. But it is not particularly introspective. There are no prose-poetical arias. The writing is unsentimental.

Instruction in expository composition left Watkins Sr. in command of an efficient, objective, no-frills style: the equivalent of a professional demeanor that could zero in on facts, while keeping subjective expression to a bare minimum. The son honors that ability with a narrative voice that is so precise in conveying the man's likes and habits and expectations of life that you are left with a sense of having met him -- yet with only a hint at the depths of feeling that it must have stirred in him to tell the story.

In that sense, A Taste for Language is not memoiristic, either. Digging through his father's textbooks and situating them in the history of language study as a discipline, Watkins is doing scholarship. And his research has implications that are not strictly personal.

People who come from a long line of securely middle-class professionals can take a certain amount of inherited cultural capital for granted. In Watkins's case, that is not an option. His recognizes that he has been shaped, however indirectly, by educational influences that were being exercised on him before he was even born. His father's upward mobility was in part the product of the pedagogical labor of writing instructors. Talk about "the life of the mind" can get highfalutin and self-aggrandizing at times. There is something to say for grasping how much of it is the result of institutional processes that go largely unnoticed.

That, in turn, raises questions about how well the present arrangement works. "On the one hand," Watkins writes, "we must accept our students' vocational goals as legitimate expressions of their desire to maintain or strengthen their economic position; on the other, we must seek out ways to persuade them that the contemplative, reflective traditions of the academy are important to their professional and social futures. Indeed, our goals ought to be even larger: to convince students that in spite of their apparent impracticality, the critical methodologies of the school have immediate professional application. Alertness to injustice isn't simply helpful in 'society in general'; it is necessary in the immediate, specific context of the work site."

Whether this can be realized in practice is, of course, another matter. Back when Watkins's father went to college, composition and literature were part of the same discipline. But that has not been the case for some time. Most training in composition is done by part-time or adjunct instructors. That arrangement, in turn, reflects a set of priorities in which such training is treated as a necessary but (at best) secondary function of the university. Which, in turn, reinforces the tendency for the rewards of higher education to go to students who arrive with adequate stocks of inherited cultural capital. It is an arrangement that seems almost as if it were designed to sustain inequality, rather than narrowing it.

"A two-tiered system of a few well-paid and independent literary teachers and researchers working side-by-side with poorly compensated part-time composition teachers would hardly support the interests of our profession, our students, or our society," writes Watkins. He calls for unionization of instructors in composition and literature as a first step towards mitigating this situation.

This reader, at least, wanted to applaud. Without the ability to bargain collectively, it's hard to see how the casualisation of academic labor will ever end. But it does rather raise the question of whether the expectation of upward mobility is not so ingrained in the professionalized middle-class as to make solidarity an almost unimaginable ideal.


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