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Notes Towards Day 1 (Tues, Aug. 30): On Learning to "Classify"

Anne Dalke's picture

Notes Towards Day One
I. welcome!
to BMC and this class about class...
class matters...classification...declassification...
co-designed by me and Jody Cohen,i n the education program
(who is reviewing the same syllabus right now,
w/ a different group of first-year students next door).

We've invited you here to think about the complex relationship
between social class, being “in class,” being “classified,"and being outclassed":
How does socioeconomic class shape educational opportunities and outcomes?

What kinds of changes does each of us expect education to bring about in our own social position?

We've done a lot of work to organize the course around these questions,
but the point of our being here together is that we'll all be
contributing our own experiences to the potluck--so let's start cooking!

II. begin w/ introductions:
write down  3 words (noun or adj.) that you use to “classify” yourself:
“classes” (=categories, groups) that are important to you,
and that you are comfortable using

go round, say your name and 3 (other!) ways of "classifying" you

break into groups of 3: go up one level of abstraction--
what are the kinds of classes that we use to name ourselves?

draw 4 site maps on board:
categories and # of entries inside them
what classes did we use--and choose not to use?

conventional 6:
race (ethnicity)/class/gender/religion/sexual orientation/disability
are other categories more important than these?

why avoid some of these? (too important? too scary? too obvious?)

what proportion of the categories are visible/invisible?

what proportion of the categories do we occupy willingly/unwillingly?

what proportion are "natural," imposed?

what categories matter most,
when we discuss our identities and those of others?
what do the categories of class signify?

In Pathologies of Power, Paul Farmer says that the "class-oppressed" are
the infrastructural expression of oppression, while other marginalized groups
(blacks, indigenous peoples, women) represent "superstructural" expressions

In The Order of Things, Michel Foucault suggests that all such categories
of classification (and the way we put them in relation to one another) are
arbitrary, revisable....look @ the first paragraph from his text: can we
draw a site map of these categories, as we did of our own classes?

--there's lots more to discuss here!!

III. why'd we kick off this discussion w/ this sorting exercise?

get you thinking/doing something experiential

remind you that you know quite a bit already, from your life experience

--and that what you know is infinitely revisable, in exchange w/ others

--and that there's been lots of interesting work done in these areas,
where we can learn more....

“class” is one category often used to “classify” people,
often in this country not named or acknowledged,

but used to fix each other w/ expectations,
oppress each other for not meeting them

decided arc of the course is that we are “classifying” creatures
(given our neural networks/way we are wired,
we cannot but “classify,” turn high-density input into
low density classfications/categories/groups
(i.e.: seeing the forest instead of each tree)

BUT also that we can revise classifications that
may have been useful to our ancestors,
once upon a time, in different eras, different cultures….

one particular question will be what role educational structures
have played/ might play in revising class structures and expectations
David Leonhardt, “Top Colleges Largely for the Elite.The New York Times (May 24, 2011):
can colleges "level the playing field," or do they
just reinforce the "savage inequities" of our social order?

IV. our design for this course intends to "level the playing field,"
and keep us all in the game! here are the rules and regs....

Jody and I will meet every Wed. to plan/co-ordinate/adjust what we're doing.
We'll meet together w/ her section a couple of times this semester;
and we have planned several other joint, outside-of-class activities:
we will visit with students from a West Philadelphia school, bring them here to visit campus;
we're going to conduct a workshops and some interviews w/ other students, staff, faculty here.
We're getting help for these out-of-class events from two upperclasswomen
who have a particular interest in these issues: Jomaira Salas and Sarah Jenness.

But mostly we'll just be meeting here, every
Tues/Thurs @ lunchtime (bring your lunch if you want).

Our syllabus is on-line @ /exchange/courses/esem/f11
you should bookmark this, and check it in preparation for every class;
it will change as the semester goes on, so be sure to "re-fresh" each time you go back!
I'm going to take you now to a # of other webpages that you'll be using for the course;
all of them are available from this homepage.

For instance: you’ll have reading to do for each class;
and will find almost all of it on-line, in a password-protected file: you should also
buy (or rent, or check out) two books:
Chris Cleave's novel, Little Bee (which we'll read @ the end of the semester),
and Diana Hacket’s Pocket Manual of Style, required of all sections
(and here's a gift from the CSem program: Gordon Harvey's Writing with Sources).

Ask you to read--and to write regularly, both in and out of class,
and to meet with me every other week to discuss your thinking and your writing.
Hope to meet with (all/most of) you on Thursday afternoons, starting next week;
sign up for conferences this Thursday, once your schedules are (more) settled.

What's unique about our course is that, besides talking w/ each other in person,
and handing in a piece of more formal writing to us each week,
and having conferences about your writing (which all E-Sem'ers do),
we are offering you an inbetween space: our on-line/class forum @

Each week, Jody and I are asking you to post a comment in that space,
reflecting on our discussion from the week before
(more deliberate than speaking in class, less formal than written work:
excellent place for showcasing revisionary thinking).
Learning to be a public intellectual, thinking out loud:
it's on the internet, not a closed space: readable-by-the-world.

First assignment, by 8 p.m. tomorrow night,
is to go to this web forum and introduce yourself
(as Jody and I have already done).

To do this, you need to follow these instructions for weekly postings.

This informal writing is background/preparation/warm-up
for your first (slightly more) “formal” writing assignment,
due @ 5 p.m. this Friday (Sept. 2):  3 pp. telling the
(most important or interesting part!) of the story of your education.

We're going to read a couple of educational autobiographies
between now and then; they may give you some ideas about
how to go about doing this...

This sets the pattern for our thinking-and-writing:
for each class
, we'll have some new material to read and discuss together.
By 8 p.m. each Sunday evening, post a short comment
in our on-line course forum, reflecting back on our discussion;
by 5 p.m. each Friday, e-mail me a 3-pp. paper expanding on those ideas.
I'll e-mail it back over the weekend, w/ my comments.

What is (probably) distinct about our course is our form of evaluation:
we will not grade any of your individual papers. @ the end of the semester,
you will put together a portfolio of all your work, and evaluate yourself.
The checklist for that evaluation, and our expectations, are all on-line
(this is not mysterious: be present in class and conferences,
contribute in-person and on-line, hand your papers in on time,
be responsive to instruction...)

Talking about "accomodations"...
What else?
Questions about any of these details of "course-keeping"?

reminder that links to all these pages--password-protected file of readings,
on-line course forum, syllabus, instructions for posting (plus a file of my
"talking notes" for class) are available from our course home page @

V. Reading aloud together Jamaica Kincaid's "Girl"
--what do you notice?
a Marxian reading of the tale: no plot! no cause-and-effect!
instead: moral precepts--> social role --> market value/reproduction of labor/no deviation
(= self perpetuation of ideology that keeps working class in place?)
absence of plot=condition of working class: no progress, advancement, just perpetuation of labor

Read 3 stories, by Rodriguez, Cisneros, and Minatoya, for Thursday
with some of these questions in mind:
how much movement occurs in each autobiography?
(how is each one structured?)
what role does education play in that motion??