Snyder, Hassel, Blaauw-Hara, Babb, and Ferris
In the mid-1990s, Lynn Bloom famously called first-year composition a middle-class enterprise, highlighting the ways in which the composition class reinforced middle-class values, ways of interaction, and knowledge-making—and, most importantly for the current discussion, middle-class (dominant) discourses. Bloom (1998) wrote that students from working-class backgrounds "want and expect their work to be conducted in Standard English," (p. 51) despite the fact that many of their home discourses are dissimilar to this "standard." One might argue that despite the subsequent decades of critical and liberatory pedagogy that has strived to widen the range of languages in first-year writing, many writing classes still place a premium on the very aspects of middle-classness that Bloom identified in her chapter—self-reliance, propriety, correctness, critical thinking—and, most importantly, adherence to discoursal characteristics of the dominant, middle-class, primarily white language that many term "standard."
For what it's worth, I think that many of the critiques of whether first-year composition should privilege white, middle-class language patterns are dead-on. For example, Asao Inoue (2017) has persuasively argued that assessing writing based on its adherence to "Standard English" does violence to those students who communicate effectively in other Englishes. Similarly, Vershawn Young (2010) argued that the idea of a monolithic "Standard English" to which even middle-class white people routinely adhere is flawed, and that in actuality, all of us mesh different Englishes together in our communication. Genevieve Garcia de Mueller and Iris Ruiz (2017) have persuasively argued that writing programs (and writing program administrators) need to put a greater premium on antiracist work, and that this work should be distributed among white faculty as well as faculty of color (who currently feel as though they have to bear the brunt of antiracist writing program work).
Additionally, as a great many writing scholars have pointed out, even white working-class students who are asked to write, talk, and act middle-class in order to succeed in writing class can feel miserable. As Michelle Navarre Cleary (2008) wrote, for working-class students, "the norms, values and language of college writing can be alien and alienating . . . working-class students can be ambivalent about the language of academic writing when they see it as distancing themselves from friends, family and their sense of themselves" (p. 117). Julie Lindquist (2004) has also written extensively about working-class rhetoric and working-class students's (often negative) experiences in writing classes.
My goal with this section is not to advocate for a white, middle-class first-year writing course. Instead, it is to provide a way to explore dialect, discourse, and power that might resonate with students who are not from white, middle-class backgrounds. I think we should change writing classes, and indeed society, to privilege communicative proficiency rather than adherence to a flawed idea of a standard grammar. However, in the meantime, how can we discuss language in ways that help students develop agency and power?
Roz Ivanič (1998) defined a discoursal self as the following
the impression—often multiple, sometimes contradictory—which [a writer] consciously or unconsciously conveys of themselves in a particular written text. […This impression] is constructed through the discourse characteristics of a text, which relate to values, beliefs and power relations in the social context in which they were written. . . . Writers construct a "discoursal self" not out of an infinite range of possibilities, but out of the possibilities for self-hood which are supported by the socio-cultural and institutional context in which they are writing. (pp. 25–26)
Note that this discoursal self is constructed (albeit sometimes unconsciously)—while it certainly relates to what Ivanič termed the autobiographical self, or the writer's self inhabited away from the discourse, the discoursal self is the constructed self the writer brings to the discourse.
My goal is to provide a way to explore dialect, discourse, and power that might resonate with students who are not from white, middle-class backgrounds.
In this way, the discoursal self is similar to a performance, a self that is presented to others in the same way an actor presents a character. Erving Goffman argued in the 1950s that we present versions of ourselves to others in this way all the time—that we highlight aspects of our selves that fit the communities in which we are trying to gain entrance. Donna LeCourt followed up this idea of performance in the early 2000s, arguing that "people can adopt a discoursal self without rejecting the self that is associated with autobiographical experiences" (cited in Clark, 2003, p. 191). Yet that performance often feels personal because our writing is so intimately connected with our selves: as Kevin Roozen (2015, p. 228) wrote, we should understand writing
not simply as a means of learning and using a set of skills, but rather as a means of engaging with the possibilities for selfhood available in a given community....[T]he difficulties people have with writing are not necessarily due to a lack of intelligence or a diminished level of literacy but rather to whether they can see themselves as participants in a particular community.
In my experience, working-class students mostly want to participate (and succeed) in college, despite its middle-class mores; however, they often have a difficult time feeling like authentic participants. Bird and Newport (2017) noted Americans’ self-identification as working-class tends to inversely correlate with college education: the more educated one is, the less likely they are to self-identify as working class. However, many others (such as Inoue and Lindquist) have noted that the cultural components of working-class identity can persist even as individuals attain higher levels of education or income. Many working-class students want to succeed in college without sacrificing the cultural ties and home discourses they grew up with, preferring instead to add on additional discourses that work in college.
Country music may provide a useful way to talk about questions of discoursal identity with our working-class students. Really, many musical genres could work equally well, as long as they have lyrics that present a persona. Much rap music does this, as do folk and bluegrass. So do some punk and blues songs. The main criterion for which type of music to consider is whether it tends to feature songs in which a discoursal self is clearly fleshed out. However, country music may be particularly well suited for discussions of class because so much of the genre so clearly focuses on working-class personae and concerns.
Because I know the genre well, and because my college is located in an area where country music is popular, I will be focusing this piece on a subgenre of country music called "outlaw." In the following sections I provide a brief history of Outlaw Country music, using examples from the genre to illustrate how artists claim discoursal identities consistent with the musical community, even when their primary identities might differ. I then discuss pedagogical implications for the first-year writing classroom.
By the 1950s, the country music genre was dominated by the Nashville Sound: polished, commercial songs that were mostly played by studio musicians backing up featured vocalists. These songs blended pop and rock structures and sensibilities with country subject matters and achieved great commercial success (Quine, 2017). As Lynden Orr, Abby Wills, and Madison Comstock (2015) wrote, Chet Atkins, one of the main architects of the Nashville Sound (and a great guitarist himself),
worked to appeal to the middle class by getting rid of country music's blue collar roots, or the honky-tonk. Honky-tonk lyrics were rife with typical working class problems like alcoholism, failed marriages, and adultery. Many Americans didn't want to hear about these things.
Examples from outlaw country illustrate how artists claim discoursal identities consistent with the musical community, even when their primary identities might differ. Similarly, even when our students may not completely fit the identities that are privileged in college, the possibility exists for them to construct (and control) discoursal identities that fit the college environment.
Despite the commercial success of the Nashville Sound, a number of country artists found themselves dissatisfied with its formulaic nature and yearned for an update of the honky-tonk sensibilities of country's earlier years. This new genre, eventually termed outlaw country, featured a more stripped-down instrumentation with introspective lyrics (Morrison, n.d.). Key early outlaw figures included Bobby Bare, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Guy Clark—musicians who, as Pitchfork (2018) wrote, "wanted to control their own musical destinies" by using their own musicians, singing songs they and their friends had written, and covering topics they saw as authentic and personal.
Although its genesis marked a rejection of an overly polished and commodified style of music, as the genre of outlaw country developed, its own genre constraints became more developed and rigid, and the persona of the outlaw-country artist became more codified as well. As new generations of outlaws took up the musical six-guns—musicians such as Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, and Kris Kristofferson, through current artists like Jason Isbell, Miranda Lambert, and Sturgill Simpson—the discoursal self of the outlaw country artist became clear. As Ivanič (1998) wrote, this discoursal self fits into the discourse characterics of a text, which "relate to the values, beliefs, and power relations in the social context in which they were written" (p. 25). Some of the values, beliefs, and power relations in outlaw country are as follows:
Because of the emphasis on individuality in outlaw country, not every outlaw artist fits each of these characteristics; however, each artist fits enough to be recognizably part of the genre. It is important to note that while the biographical details of the three outlaw artists I describe below are sometimes consistent with the discoursal identities they present, that is not always the case. As I noted earlier in this piece, "working class" is difficult to define, and there are competing definitions even within working-class scholarship. Some of these artists have biographies that would not, at first glance, seem to fit our standard understandings of what working class means. However, what is important to this present webtext is that all of these artists construct discoursal identities that are largely consistent with the outlaw-country genre. Similarly, even when our students may not completely fit the identities that are privileged in college, the possibility exists for them to construct (and control) discoursal identities that fit the college environment.
For some outlaw artists, there is very little difference between their autobiographical self and the discoursal self they project in their music. For example, one key outlaw artist is Hank Williams, Jr., the son of one of the progenitors of the genre, Hank Williams. Although Hank, Jr., is the son of country royalty, he has consistently embodied the values, beliefs, and power relations of outlaw country. Take, for example, his song "Family Tradition":
I am very proud of my daddy's name
Although his kind of music and mine ain't exactly the same
Stop and think it over, put yourself in my position
If I get stoned and sing all night long
it's a family tradition
Don't ask me, "Hank, why do you drink? Hank, why do you roll smoke?
Why must you live out the songs that you wrote?"
If I'm down in a honky-tonk and some ol' slick's trying to give me friction
I'll say leave me alone, I'm singing all night long
It's a family tradition.
As much as can be reasonably expected from any song lyrics, these are all true. Hank, Jr. did start his musical career emulating his father, but later forged his own brand of outlaw country; he did struggle with alcohol and drugs; he did sing in a wide variety of venues, from the Grand Ole Opry to honky-tonk bars (Hank Williams, Jr., 2020; Hank Williams, Jr. Biography, n.d.). Even though he departed from his father's songs, he went on to achieve great success in the outlaw country genre, integrating rock-and-roll's rough musical vibes while adhering to country's song structures and lyrical content.
In recent years, Hank, Jr. has become more publicly political, attacking real and imagined liberal politics and politicians in ways that seem at least somewhat unhinged. In 2012, he said on stage that President Obama was a Muslim who hated the military and the United States (Cantwell, 2016). Some of his songs, such as "If the South Woulda Won," come off as clearly racist, sexist, and isolationist when listened to today. Some of his others—"A Country Boy Can Survive," "Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound," "All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight"—have become country staples. Yet despite his contradictions, Hank, Jr. has been a major influence on the outlaw country genre.
The Drive-By Truckers are another interesting case in the outlaw tradition, equally outspoken as Hank, Jr., but in the opposite direction. Originally hailing from Muscle Shoals in Alabama, the band is co-fronted by songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. Hood, especially, has genealogical authenticity on par with Hank, Jr., with a father (David Hood) who was a session bassist for many of the great musical acts to record in Muscle Shoals, including Aretha Franklin, Willie Nelson, Joan Baez, Linda Rondstadt, and many more. Many of DBT's songs are set in the South and are grounded in outlaw country's genre characteristics, especially anti-authoritarianism, family, working-class values, and hard living. Take, for example, the lyrics to "Aftermath USA" (which—trigger warning—contain a reference to being drugged):
When I crawled out of bed this morning
I could tell something wasn't right
There were cigarettes in the ashtrays
They weren't your menthol lights
There were beer bottles in the kitchen
And broken glass on the floor
Someone must have slipped me something
Passed out a couple days before
The car was in the carport sideways
Big dent running down the side
Never seen anything as frightening
As when I took a look inside
Smell of musk and deception
Heel marks on the roof-line
Bad music on the stereo
All the seats in recline
The aftermath staring me right in the face
I'll get around to breaking even one of these days
As with Hank, Jr., to a large extent Hood's autobiographical self is not too far away from his discoursal self. However, he challenges the stereotype of the Southern Man in many ways, and with the rise of the alt-right and its association with the South, Hood began to be more outspoken about the ways he departed from conservative ideologies. In a 2015 piece he wrote for the New York Times Magazine, Hood provided a history of progressive thought in his part of the South, argued that the Confederate Flag is too connected to racism and hate to be displayed, and discussed how he has tried to portray a nuanced view of what it means to be Southern in his music. During the live shows for the 2016 album American Band, DBT began displaying Black Lives Matter signs on their stage, and in an article in the Guardian, Hood noted that "I am as truly in [Trump's] demographic as you can get and I don't want anyone for a second to think that SOB speaks for me. . . . Alabama is a red state, but there are people who feel otherwise there. There needs to be more middle-aged southern dudes saying that [B]lack [L]ives [M]atter" (Guarino, 2016). In "Ever South," from American Band, Hood chastised his "Christian Southern brethren" for failing to live up to their ideals, "whistling past the graveyard" and ignoring their own anxiety and hypocrisy:
Now my Christian Southern brethren will tell you all what for
To keep your heathen ways up in you and your shoes outside the door
Take your stand for noble causes till you just can't stand no more
And surrender to some savior, praise the Lord
But despite our best intentions, it pains me to report
We keep swinging for the fences, coming up a little short
We sure can get it wrong for someone so devout
I hear you whistling past the graveyard looking down
Hood illustrated the argument that identity is
not unitary or fixed but has multiple facets; is subject to tensions and contradictions; and is in a constant state of flux, varying from one time and one space to another. This multifaceted identity is constructed in the interaction between a person, others, and their sociocultural context. . . . The discoursal self may be contradictory, as the writer may perceive a disjuncture between the way she would like to be read and the way she thinks a reader or readers will in fact read her. (Burgess & Ivanič, 2010, pp. 232-233)
Hood's identity is in just this "constant state of flux," as he highlights those qualities that fit the outlaw convention and yet challenges other standards of the discourse community.
My final example is Uncle Tupelo, a band that was an integral part of the alt-country movement of the late '80s and early '90s. As a trio from Illinois, the band did not check many of outlaw country's autobiographical boxes—they were Midwesterners, miles away from Nashville, Texas, or any of country's other epicenters. Certainly they were working-class, as is detailed in one of the members' autobiographies (Tweedy, 2018), and they loved outlaw country music as well as punk and early rock, so they set out to craft discoursal identities that fit the genre. One of the band's high points was the album March 16–20, 1992, which was produced by Peter Buck of R.E.M. The album features a roughly half-and-half split of original music and cover songs, most of which were traditional southern tunes (i.e., "Moonshiner," "Coalminers," and "I Wish My Baby Was Born"). Their original songs used many of the same tropes as songs from the outlaw tradition, as can be seen in "Black Eye":
He had a black eye
He was proud of
Like some of his friends
It made him feel somewhere outside
Of everything and everywhere he'd been
Like his brothers
He emptied himself
And played it safe
Like their father
He wanted to remember
But he almost always
Forgot what he was gonna say
When he realized
That this one was here to stay
He took down
All the mirrors in the hallway
And thought only of his younger face
As John Schacht (n.d.) wrote in his retrospective on the album, the song's narrator "realizes his black eyes—whether from drunken brawls or a metaphor for life's cruelty doesn't really matter—have become a simple fact of life"—certainly a realization that Hank Williams, Jr., and Patterson Hood would recognize. Schacht attributed Uncle Tupelo's enduring influence to the fact that they created albums that "were fresh, honest and raw . . . enough to tap into the same timelessness that personified the music of the punk, country rock and country pioneers they so admired." They did this, in part, by consciously appropriating the very songs of those traditions and presenting them alongside the band's own compositions; and, on their own compositions, Uncle Tupelo crafted a discoursal identity that was close enough to the outlaw country genre to lay claim to membership. Anne Herrington and Marcia Curtis (2000) wrote that college writers look for people, languages, genres, and practices "with which to shape a self to speak from. . . . Also important, as . . . students developed the sense of a kindred group to speak from, they were simultaneously envisioning a group they spoke for, a group with whom they also shared an identity" (pp. 370–371). Uncle Tupelo did much the same work as they crafted their discoursal identities—not coming from the outlaw country tradition, but still loving its tropes and music, they crafted identities that spoke from and for others like them—not from the South, perhaps, and not hailing from a family tradition that was steeped in country royalty, but a group that related to working-class problems, family relationships, and the struggle for authenticity.
The performative nature of the discoursal self can help students—especially those for whom academic discourse feels alien—see that crafting an academic discoursal self does not necessitate leaving their autobiographical selves behind.
Academic writing occurs in the context of a community that has certain values, beliefs, and power relations. A student writer's success in academic writing is not only dependent on their mastery of certain grammatical and stylistic conventions; it is tied to their ability to present a discoursal self that embodies the values, beliefs, and power relations that are consistent with academia. For those of us who have been connected with writing-studies scholarship over the last several decades, this understanding of academic writing is unsurprising, albeit disturbing when we consider which discoursal selves are privileged and which are not. However, many students come into our writing classes without having considered their own discoursal selves and how they might craft and control them (Jamali & Sani, 2015).
Music provides writing teachers with a way to introduce the concept of discoursal identity to students that may be easier for them to apprehend. After all, first-year writing students are new to college, and their understanding of the college discourse community is imperfect. However, most of them likely have a long history of appreciating music, and most will have at least a tacit understanding of the ways artists and songwriters claim membership in different musical traditions.
In the section above, I provided three examples of how outlaw country artists touched on key values, beliefs, and power relations to craft discoursal selves consistent with the genre. A key part of this discussion is where the autobiographical selves of the artists fit imperfectly with the discoursal selves—for example, Patterson Hood's embracing of Black Lives Matter and rejection of Donald Trump and the Southern Cross, and Uncle Tupelo's Midwestern origins. The differences between these artists' selves help underscore the performative nature of the discoursal self. This can help students—especially those for whom academic discourse feels alien—see that crafting an academic discoursal self does not necessitate leaving their autobiographical selves behind.
Certainly, students (and faculty) may be more familiar with other musical genres than they are with outlaw country. And indeed, there is nothing particularly special about outlaw country that lends it to this type of assignment. As a classroom activity, I would encourage students and faculty to consider several genres of music that contain lyrics—rap, pop, mainstream country, or rock, for instance, or even sub-genres of the above that students may be familiar with—and analyze the "possibilities for selfhood" that are present in each. Discuss how the artists lay claim to values, beliefs, and power relations that are central to the genres. It may also be useful to have students do some research on artists' actual histories, and to discuss what happens when an artist's autobiographical self differs from their discoursal self.
Then, instructors can transition to a discussion of academia. Writing teachers are likely on firmer ground when looking at academic genres, but the key here is to help students understand how academic genres are embedded in values and beliefs of college. This discussion will lead to one about the possibilities for selfhood that are available to students. This is not to say that students cannot resist or complicate the traditional possibilities for selfhood found in academia, similarly to how Patterson Hood complicates those of outlaw country. Indeed, a very productive series of discussions could center on how writers might challenge some of those traditional possibilities for selfhood, as Young (2010) advocated.
This last point may be difficult (though worthwhile) for writers who come from a background—socioeconomically, racially, culturally—that feels in conflict with academia. There is no easy solution to this difficulty. In many ways, first-year composition—and college—is still the middle-class enterprise identified by Bloom (1998). Students will have to make their own decisions about how much they want to buy into academic discourse, and how to craft discoursal selves that feel authentic. As writing teachers, one of our key goals should be to encourage students to make decisions about their discoursal selves more consciously. Stepping a bit to the side of academia and talking about genre and identity in music can be a way for writing teachers to encourage students to start thinking along these lines.
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