Last year, in a writing conference conducted over Zoom, a student confessed in her college essay draft that she’s “always been afraid to tell people about where [she] lives.” She went on to reveal that she lived in a trailer park, a fact that she had managed to conceal for most of her life until the pandemic brought her classroom into her home.
In those strange days of virtual learning, we learned a lot about each other. We learned who had grandparents living at home with them, who shared a room with a brother or sister, who had reliable WiFi, who had a desk to work at, and so on. In my conference with this student, I discovered a few things: (1) we were all learning far more about each others’ social class situation than any of us anticipated and (2) many of us did not know how to talk about it.
Though this student expressed anxiety about her living situation, she also did not connect her situation to a specific class status and struggled to find the vocabulary to express what she was trying to say. As I started to pay closer attention, I discovered that she was just one of my students who struggled to express the reality of their class situation or the impact it had on their ability to access education. Students spoke articulately about their racial and gender identities in their college essays, but skirted around their class status. When pressed to discuss what they knew about social class, they would make vague references to Marx, the “haves” and “have-nots,” labels that they did not truly identify with.
When social class is explicitly discussed, either in social or academic contexts, it is most often defined in relation to the material – to wealth, property, and labor. However, what social theorists like Bordieu, Lindquist, Bettie reveal in their research is that social class is not just a political identity, but a cultural one, “a sense of one’s place(s) in the cultural economy of meaning” (Bettie, 2014), in which class identity is experienced and expressed both materially and emotionally.
In my work to develop a curriculum that foregrounds a treatment of social class that emphasizes the cultural identity of class, I used three class concepts as key terms that guided students’ literary analysis of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. While students read the novel, they identified and explained how class performance (how class status is expressed in both consumption and behavior), cultural capital (the symbolic, cultural knowledge that can signal belonging or exclusion from a group), and class injury (the feelings of anxiety or alienation caused by perceiving one’s own class difference) functioned in the novel as a whole (Bettie, 2014; Lindquist 2004). The class analysis framework I used is copied below.
In my past experience, teaching The Great Gatsby through a traditional Marxist perspective (who “has” and who “has not”) has always yielded mediocre results, with students falling into arguments about the American Dream or cliches about how “money can’t buy happiness.” I hoped that, armed with a lens that conceptualized class as more than just a political identity or material reality, students would not only be able to produce more sophisticated analyses of Fitzgerald’s characters, but also perhaps be able to transfer their understanding to their lives and class reality.
After instruction on key class concepts, developing a shared vocabulary with which to discuss social class, and constant positioning of social class as an identity that is experienced emotionally, students began to develop complex literary analyses that interpreted the characters’ behaviors as expressions of class status and anxieties, rather than simple literary quirks. In a post-unit interview, one student admitted, “I didn’t focus on the class issues at all when I first read it, I…thought it was just a love triangle type thing, but then looking back you realize how it’s…a long line of lower-class people who die because of the upper-class.” Another student reflected that her sense of her own class status changed as a result of the unit and helped her understand that her anxieties of her classmates seeing her room through Zoom call was an expression of her class identity.
In the end, my students produced some of the most sophisticated analysis of The Great Gatsby I’ve seen and walked away with an improved understanding of their own class identities. It has long been the business of ELA teachers to tackle complex social issues such as race and gender through literary study. For teachers hoping to treat social class with the same complexity and sophistication, a social class lens that accounts for both the material and the cultural may help students more effectively navigate their social class experiences.
|Table 1. Class Analysis Framework|
Money and Labor
Consumption of goods, economic capital, and labor
Knowledge and Power
Performance and Affect
Class Performance and Class Injuries
What is the economic class of the characters in the text? How is the economic class revealed through the economic capital (money and goods) in the text?
What kind of labor do the characters perform? How does that labor reveal their class standing?
What kind of knowledge do certain characters have that other characters don’t?
How does the author link that knowledge to the characters’ specific socioeconomic status?
How does the author reveal the characters’ social class through their behavior or appearance?
How do the characters feel about their socioeconomic status?
How do the characters protect themselves against class injury?
|Setting||How does the author illustrate the class differences between different settings using money, goods, or labor?||What kind of cultural capital does the author link to different settings within the text?||How do the different settings in the book reveal the way in which class is performative?|
|Conflict||What are the central conflicts in the text? To what extent is economic capital/labor a factor in those conflicts?||What are the central conflicts in the text? To what extent is a lack of access to cultural capital a factor in those conflicts?||How do the characters’ class performances contribute to the central conflicts in the text?|
What are the central themes in the text? What messages about class are conveyed through this theme?
Does the author convey class concepts solely through the lens of economic capital? If so, how?
What messages about cultural capital are conveyed through the theme?
To what extent does the author include cultural capital in their discussion of class concepts?
In what ways do the class performances of characters illustrate the central themes of the text?
To what extent does the author include class performance and class injury in their discussion of class concepts?
|Note: In regard to theme, these class concepts will likely be in conversation with each other. You may wish to respond to the theme overall, thinking about which class concepts are present, absent, emphasized, or marginalized in the text.|
Bettie, J. (2014). Women without class: girls, race, and identity. University of California Press.
Bourdieu, P. (1977). Cultural reproduction and social reproduction. In J. Karabel, & A. H. Halsey (Eds.), Power and Ideology in Education (pp. 487-511). Oxford University Press.
Lindquist, J. (2004). Class affects, classroom affectations: working through the paradoxes of strategic empathy. College English, 67(2), 187-209.
To read the study in full, you can check out:
Godard, N. (2022). Beyond Marx: Cultural social class analysis in the English Language Arts classroom. English Journal, 111(4), 20-26.