Shakespeare and Working-Class Students: The Value of Irrelevance

In these tough times for higher education, English departments almost routinely begin each year reviewing grim reports of decreasing numbers of majors.  This sparks hand-wringing, soul-searching, and the inevitable conclusion that we must “market ourselves better” to show the “practical” applications of an English major—and to make our offerings more “relevant.” A sub-committee is often formed, and faculty toss around ideas about how better to ‘brand’ English.  These conversations take place all over the country, at all kinds of institutions, but for the public access university, funded according to how many students not only enroll but also complete, these numbers matter.  These universities also serve the majority of first-generation and working-class students. .

Yet, as a former working-class, first-generation college student turned academic, this privileging of practicality, what our administration calls “relevant education” (as in career focused not culturally relevant) has long given me pause.  When my department had that conversation recently, I suggested that instead of going down this road one more time, perhaps we could “brand” the English major as driven by passion rather than practicality.

You can imagine the response: colleagues scoffed at my apparent naiveté (or stupidity) in suggesting that we market ourselves by highlighting our irrelevance.

But I want to make the case that irrelevance — that is, the pursuit of knowledge with no discernable practical application, or even blatantly personal connection — is critical for providing working-class and first-generation college students with the intellectual skills that will ultimately afford them real mobility. Irrelevance has also become less and less available to students like ours. The value of irrelevance become clear in a workshop I recently I co-organized at The Shakespeare Association of America’s annual meeting with Sharon O’Dair, one of the sharpest critics of class, status, and the profession that I know. “Working-Class Shakespeare(s): Shakespeare in Class and Class in Shakespeare” explored the implications of Shakespeare as synecdoche for literary studies and “literate culture” more broadly, why Shakespeare matters for working-class students, and what this means in for pedagogy and critical practice.

Participants, almost all of us academics from working-class backgrounds, contingent faculty, graduate students, or, a combination of these, many working at regional, second-tier, and access institutions, took up a series of questions: Does your institution have a discernable class and/or status ‘marker’ (i.e. selective, access, open admissions, etc.)? Do you teach students whose class differs from yours?  If so, how do you negotiate that difference?  Does such difference affect your learning expectations and outcomes for your students? Your pedagogy?

Amid the varied responses, an interesting thread emerged: an uneasy awareness that, given the institutional pressures of publicly funded institutions to graduate as many students as possible, faculty work expectations at access institutions, and the preparation and work pressures of students, working-class and first generation students often learn a different kind of Shakespeare than their counterparts at elite institutions.

Participants carefully discussed how working-class students oftenattend college in order to get out of the “working class” – economically for sure, but also culturally.  The seminar left me with a new understanding of how many of us at regional, access, and even flagship institutions, may have unintentionally internalized what is, ironically, a classist paradigm—that our students are only here to get jobs, and narrow skills training is the best way to get them.

The seminar discussions further revealed that, for some, educating working-class students means teaching differently from how we might teach the sons of lawyers or stockbrokers. We want to validate the perspectives from which many of us  come and accommodate the pressures our students face. This is well and good, and even politically and/or morally right, but it can sometimes also lead us to avoid rigorous methodologies, which in turn could hamstring those we aim to propel forward. Several participants said they felt pressured to teach less theory, for example, or to relax writing assignments or adjust grading criteria, all in the name of helping students complete their degrees and thus improve their economic opportunities.  Of course, working-class students (like most students) do see college as a vehicle for upward mobility, but many also see college as a means of feeding their intellectual curiosity, and this is often more precious to them than to students of privilege.

We aim at practicality and relevance in a well-intentioned effort to bring our working-class students into the fold, but our attention to practicality and ‘where our students are’ may hamper their capacity for real, dynamic social mobility. The real critical and intellectual value of literary study is that it develops curiosity and appreciation for what seems completely irrelevant.

Ironically, it’s these irrelevant and impractical thinking habits that might just provide the “skills” students need to become leaders in an interconnected, increasingly complex, global economy. In a recent piece, Scott L. Newstok says the best advice for students transitioning from an overly tested, standardized, primary education to college is to think more like Shakespeare. Newstok argues that, while the early modern education Shakespeare would have received was constraining by today’s standards, its emphasis on ways of thinking allowed Shakespeare and others to thrive as collaborators, innovators, and critical thinkers. Newstok suggests that “the best way to prepare for an unforeseen future is to learn how to think intensively and imaginatively,” citing, among others, Abraham Flexner’s notion of “the usefulness of useless knowledge.”

I love Newstok’s piece, not only because I’m a Shakespearean but for  the ideals it embraces. Yet, as any English major knows, audience matters. Newstok’s treatise is adapted from an address to students at Rhodes College, a selective liberal arts college, with an annual price tag of $44,942. So while Newstok extols the virtue of liberal education at Rhodes, the state administrators who govern public access institutions in many states, like Ohio, would certainly view his message with skepticism.

Ohio’s public education policy has increasingly entrenched inequality and reproduction of a status quo that, as Eric Alterman explains, treats college as a business, while appearing to “want a docile proletariat who will work for them, without unions or any hope of upward mobility.” Institutionally, the bifurcation of vocational preparation and intellectual enrichment fosters an educational class division, as access publics become stringently focused on the former, while elites and selective colleges foster the latter. This division, coupled with the application of the neoliberal consumer paradigm to the public institution, ultimately damages working-class students, who overwhelmingly filter into these institutions where they become  the victims of class inequity that reproduces stratification and exclusion. As the public system by default reproduces class structures that prepare one group (students at elites and private colleges) to lead, and another to (my students) to follow.

Faculty, too, become victims in this neoliberal model. In the top-down, bottom-line, business model, faculty are disenfranchised from governance and distanced from their intellectual work by a never-ending series of accountability tasks dictated by middle management, who are themselves often responding to demands that they prove the relevance and efficiency of state universities.

Relevance and practicality by definition assume a norm, a status quo, and those of us who were drawn to the academy and to Working-Class Studies because both seemed to have the potential to challenge hegemonic systems of inequality, must always remain watchful that we are not internalizing the imperatives of a ruling class, even as we hope to weaken its grip.

Tim Francisco

Tim Francisco is the Director of the Center for Working-Class Studies and a Professor of English at Youngstown State University.

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