mike rose, the mind at work and how academics get working-class credibility

By | February 14, 2012

This post is about two recent works by Mike Rose, an educational researcher at UCLA who focuses, as he describes it, low-status places–working-class schools, blue-collar job sites, remedial classrooms–places not privileged by society or, frequently, by the institutions in which they are located” (Rose 2012, p. 2). The two works are:

Rose, M. (2004). The Mind at Work: Valuing the intelligence of the American worker. New York: Penguin.

Rose, M. (2012). Rethinking Remedial Education and the Academic-Vocational Divide. Mind, Culture, and Activity 19(1): 1-16.

the mind at workI’ve been using The Mind at Work as an anchor text for an undergraduate educational psychology course, and I was just prepping to discuss chapter 4, “the vocabulary of carpentry” as I got distracted scrolling through the xmca listserv in which several members of the listserv were discussing Mike Rose’s article “Rethinking remedial education.

The article starts out with a bang:

What you see depends on where you sit, and for how long. You enter the classroom from the rear, wanting to be discrete on your first visit, and slip into the desk closest to the door. A few students 20 notice you, but most are walking around or leaning over to the person next to them talking. Except for one woman, the class is all men, 20s and 30s, a few White guys, the rest Black and Latino. Hoodies, baggy pants, loud profanity. The teacher is in front at a cloudy overhead projector. Three men are around him—each seems bigger than the next—and they are arguing.

The room is old and dingy, no windows, bare except for the irregular rows of desks, the table 25 with the projector, a cart holding pipes and metal bars, and in the corner a worn flag from the American Welding Society. You’re trying to take it all in when a sullen guy in an oversized T-shirt, a bandanna around his head, walks over to you and asks, “What are you doin’ here?”

Rose explains that “[t]his is an article about perception and ability, about the way beliefs about cognition blend with social characteristics—class, race, gender—to create both instructional responses and institutional structures that limit human development for people already behind the economic eight ball.” We read his opening paragraphs, we get a sense of what this classroom is like, what its students are all about. But, Rose explains, our first impressions are wrong: The surroundings, the foul language, the clothing choices–they belie an effort to develop serious vocational skills. They belie these students’ focus, sense of purpose, and intelligence.

And that guy who wanted to know what you’re doing here? Well, it’s a legitimate question, isn’t it? And everything depends on how you answer it. When it was posed to me, I said I was here to study programs like this one because we need to know more about them to convince our politicians that we need more of them. The man’s features softened, and we moved out into the hallway. “We need programs like this,” he said. “People like us.” “It’s the teacher that really makes a difference,” he continued. “He treats us like we’re people.”

In the chapter from The mind at work that I’m prepping for today’s class, Rose writes: “What testing vocabulary do we have, for example, to discern the making of judgments from the feel of things, or the strategic use of tool and body, or the rhythmic spacing of tasks, or the coordination of effort and material toward the construction of a complex object?”

Certainly the purpose of this book, and of a lot of Mike Rose’s work, is not to show how skills developed through welding, for example, or waitressing or carpentry or what-have-you can help you advance beyond a given vocation. In fact, in the introduction to his excellent book, he gently criticizes a discourse that treats working-class activity as romantic because of its physicality. He writes:

How interesting it is…that our testaments to physical work are so often focused on the values such work exhibits rather than on the thought it requires. It is a subtle but pervasive omission. Yet there is a mind at work in dignity, and values are intimately related to thought and action.

I’ve also been interested to watch how Mike Rose and other scholars focusing on blue-collar work establish their orientation toward blue-collarness–primarily by establishing credibility by pointing to personal experience with blue-collar work. I do this all the time: I say that I grew up in a working-class household. I say that I am public school-educated all the way from kindergarten to graduate degree(s). I say that before I came to academia I was a groundskeeper, a cashier, a phone operator, blah blah blah. This is designed to, perhaps, “prove” I have access to the exotic world of the blue-collar worker, to “prove” I have cachet.

Yet if I were to tell Ray, the pseudonym for the aspiring welder in Mike Rose’s “rethinking remedial education” who asks Rose why he’s in the classroom, about my “working-class credibility,” what do you think he would do? Me, standing there, a white, well educated academic who can choose when to enter his classroom and when to leave, whose livelihood both does not depend on whether I can learn today’s math lesson and rests on the backs of those learners who are trying to do precisely that?

I think it’s far less common for researchers to use their personal backgrounds to “prove” they “understand” research participants who come from more privileged backgrounds–say, students in a gifted and talented program or students completing advanced graduate work. Perhaps researcher credibility does not need to be established in these cases; perhaps its existence is simply understood.

“I used to ______, but now I _________.” When we demonstrate our class-ness, when we offer our personal histories, we assume we’re confessing our relationship to the phenomena of interest. And certainly that’s part of it.

But when we say “I used to _______” or “before I came to academia I _______” are we attempting the opposite of “going native”? Are we actually simultaneously feigning distancing ourselves from academia while in fact embracing it fully? We have the best of intentions, but to what extent do our best intentions serve only to further stigmatize and Other our research participants without actually leaving us with any taint of Other?

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