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“What Work Is”: Writing about Work in First-Year Composition

This post is excerpted from Christian Aguiar’s article “ ‘What Work Is’: Writing about Work in First-Year Composition” in the December 2018 issue of Teaching English in the Two-Year College.


As working-class students continue to enter into the academy, the academy must take steps to make them feel comfortable and welcome. We should pay special attention to “features of teaching that subtly or blatantly alienate working-class students and set up further obstacles for them to overcome in order to succeed” (Thelin and Carter 9).

While many of the struggles students experience outside of the classroom are beyond our control as instructors, we do have control over the texts we use, the assignments we create, and the discussions we have.

Making issues of work and class core elements of our pedagogy can help make the classroom a more inclusive space, one where students’ experiences outside of the academy are valued—in short, a space where they are set up for inclusion and success rather than marginalization and failure.

One way we might think about supporting working-class students is by taking steps to help them see themselves in our classrooms, to try to confront the ways “academic language can make working-class students feel like imposters or traitors” (Mack 141). In order to do this, we would need to revise both our reading lists and our writing assignments.

One of the challenges, however—a challenge particularly felt by adjunct faculty—is limited control over the types of texts and assignments that can be used in a first-year composition course. For any move in the direction of a more class-conscious andragogy to be feasible in first-year composition courses that rely heavily on contingent faculty, it must offer assignments that are both flexible and portable.

My solution for several years now has been the work narrative. I define a work narrative as a form of literacy narrative that focuses on work, centering the process of learning or doing work. The spiritual model for the assignment, as it were, is Mike Rose’s The Mind at Work, which explores the thinking and learning that happens in working-class jobs.

Rose writes of how seeing and doing this work influenced his own notions of intelligence:

I would later come to understand the dynamics of occupational status and social class, but I could sense early on how difficult the work was, and that without it, we’d starve. I also saw that people knew things through work. And they used what they’d learned. This experience was all very specific to me, not abstract, emerging from the lived moments of work I had witnessed, from all sorts of objects and images, from sound and smell, from the rhythms of the body. (xii)

Rose’s introduction makes a case that physically demanding work is also intellectually demanding work, that exploring the way people learn their work, complete their work, and value their work is a meaningful experience.

The work narrative as an assignment tries to bring that experience into the first-year writing classroom. There can be a great deal of flexibility in what that looks like, but the core invitation is this: write about work, its challenges, its value, the way it is done, the way work is treated; write about yourself as a worker.

This approach is unique in at least one dimension: we tend to think of our students as students, and therefore we design assignments that appeal to them as learners. This approach privileges students who have followed a more traditional middle-class path to college and who see themselves as primarily students. In so doing, it marginalizes those who don’t feel ownership over the classroom. Why not think of students first as workers? Why separate learning from working?

Perhaps surprisingly, then, my understanding of the educational value of the work narrative emerges from the learner-focused literacy narrative. Like the literacy narrative, the work narrative helps students develop a sense of comfort with their own writing and offers an entryway into the language of academic writing.

Anne-Marie Hall and Christopher Minnix suggest the literacy narrative is valuable because it helps students “integrate learning about writing into their prior knowledge about writing” (58).

In addition, by giving students the chance to bring prior knowledge of writing into the classroom, we help them deal with the cognitive overload of their first semester of college writing by giving them “scaffolding” (58). The work narrative, like the literacy narrative, does both of these things. The site of knowledge shifts from knowledge about writing to knowledge about working, but then writing is a form of work, isn’t it?

Following Mike Rose—whose essay “The Working Life of a Waitress” is an exemplar of one type of work narrative, blending personal reflections on his mother’s work life with a discussion of how waitresses learn to balance their various tasks—we might say that work is a form of knowledge.

The work narrative seems particularly suited to community college students since we know that, according to reports from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 46 percent of full-time and 76 percent of part-time community college students work (3). To borrow a line from Philip Levine, these students “know what work is,” so giving them the opportunity to write about it positions them as experts in a way other first-year writing assignments may not.

Drawing again on the scholarship of the literacy narrative, we know that helping students feel like experts makes the transition to academic writing more fluid.

Thus if the literacy narrative, as Hall and Minnix argue, “permits students to draw on their experiences in ways that lead to academic writing and thinking,” the work narrative might be said to do the same (61). One of the powers of the literacy narrative is that everyone in a college classroom has some experience with learning to read and write; similarly, in the typical community college classroom, every student has experience with labor.

This is especially true if we offer students a range of ways to frame work: not just physical work or paid work but service work, domestic work, care work. This reinforces a fundamental strength of the literacy narrative: because the genre prioritizes experience, not research, it gives students the chance to enter into complex conversations without needing to be fully comfortable with academic discourse.


Read more (and see works cited) in Christian Aguiar’s full article “ ‘What Work Is’: Writing about Work in First-Year Composition” in the December 2018 issue of Teaching English in the Two-Year College.