The following is a brief more or less reflective essay. I asked my students to see what they could come up with in 60 minutes of writing, and I thought I would do the same. So here’s what I wrote in 60 minutes about de-voicing:
All writers and writing teachers think about voice. Academics are usually quite silly about it—arguing about whether there is any such thing and if there is, what it is. As both a writer and teacher, I have considered voice central to my teaching and writing. Because I study and write about social class, I have linked voice or de-voice to social-class issues. My lack of voice was certainly tied to my unease with my social class origins—rural and decidedly working-class.
My early years were on a small Wisconsin dairy farm with seventeen cows and eighty acres. I lived with my parents, two siblings, and grandparents and their December child in a three-bedroom farm house. It was probably about sixteen hundred square feet. We lived close. We didn’t have indoor plumbing, much less a telephone.
So I grew up with rural, working-class language. I didn’t have trouble with my voice in the two one-room school houses I attended, grades 1-8. All the kids more or less came from the same social class and shared the same language. Only the teachers, Bob Murphy at Rockbridge and Betty Newkirk at Brush Creek, would have devalued our language, our “Me and Chuck fell into the creek yesterday,” or “Melanie don’t want to come to school.” Mrs. Newkirk, whom
I adored, would have been particularly snippy. She thought Danny, my classmate, and I might do well in high school and even go to college. Neither Danny nor I (we were a class of two) had heard of college. Because we were in a rural, one-room school house,
both of us were worried about going to high school, where we would have to mix with the town-kids, the ones who had gone to big schools with maybe 40 or 50 kids in a grade, something unimaginable to us.
I remember in eighth grade when Danny and I had to go to Buck Creek School, sun shining, and spend the morning taking a test that would place us in the accelerated or non-accelerated freshman class at Richland Center High School (they openly tracked back in those days in fear of being left behind by the Russians, who had launched Sputnik). I can see the school house now—a white, clapboard school house with a large play yard, a softball diamond, swings, and teeter-totters. Large windows going to the top of the twelve-foot single room where we all sat and were tested. Karen Stibbe, a girl I later tried to have sex with, and Christine were there. And Dale Pauls and Pat Manning—now that I think of it.
I remember when I was told I had made it—I was in the accelerated class. I remember walking up our long driveway after having gone into town for church. I don’t know how we got the news, but I think my mother told me that I was in. Danny, too. I had been very worried that Danny would make it, and I wouldn’t. I didn’t really know the significance of making it “in” or being “out,” but I had some sense. Dale and Pat didn’t make it. Karen and Christine did.
Being “in” or “out” may in part have been based on intelligence, but I don’t think so. I can’t account for Danny—who was clearly as intelligent as I was—but my mother came from a half-educated family. Her mother had graduated from Ripon College in about 1910—highly unusual for a woman back then. My grandmother came from a family of reasonably successful farmers and I think her uncle was the president of Ripon. My grandmother, however, had a premarital pregnancy (J
) and married the son of–get this–a traveling salesman. Same think happened to my mother, who had a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin, where she, too, had one of those kinds of sexual relationships and had to marry my father, who came from a long line of rural, highly uneducated farmers.
My mother was determined that I would be “literate”; that is, I would sound as if (my voice) I were educated. So she policed my and my siblings’ language and made sure that we read, read, read. She got my siblings and me hooked on books. That’s how I got “in.”
I didn’t realize this would be a narrative. I wanted this essay to go elsewhere, but as is usual in my writing now, when I get going, the narrative finds its own path. I know that because I was in the accelerated class, I was comfortable with my language. I was considered “smart.” I was, however, aware of social-class distinctions. (This is interesting). I knew there were kids who were way above me: their parents were wealthy, one girl, with whom
I fell in love, was the mayor’s daughter; another one of my loves was the daughter of a physician and owner of the major clinic in town. I was able to negotiate these class differences by my classroom performances, athletics, and socio-political accomplishments, but I knew there was a difference—the ones from up there, and me.
I am timing myself—seeing what I can write in an hour—the time frame I have given you. I have several moments—I have them visually—when I was an undergraduate and graduate at the University of Wisconsin. I remember a moment in a class on Pope—and perhaps other 18th
Century writers. This is hard to describe. There were about 40 people in the room, arranged in rows while the professor (a clearly very nice person), lectured. I just remember in the Q&A, asking a question. And then another. It was daring to ask a question. I don’t know why I did, but I just put myself out there. It was kind of like I was bored, listening to everyone else, and I just wanted to be in the conversation. I was giving myself voice.
I had another moment like this when I was a graduate student at Wisconsin. I remember a seminar. I think it might have been with Richard Dembo—one of the giants of the New Criticism movement. I remember trying to pay attention to the conversation—perhaps 20 of us sitting in a circle—and wanting to make a statement, ask a question. This was the same as with the Pope class. If you don’t talk, you are odd man out. Even dumb questions mean you are there—willing to get into the conversation.
I remember in both of these instances worrying about my language, about whether I would say something incorrect. And so while the conversation was going on, I had picked a spot of interest, a moment in which I could contribute to the conversation. But I was so busy rehearsing my sentence or series of sentences so that I wouldn’t speak ungrammatically, that by the time I had raised my hand and was called on, my question was yesterday’s news.
I am now, I think, at the end of my career. I wonder whether my early experiences in de-voicing have not pushed me into over-voicing.
I might have a reputation as an iconoclast. I really don’t like academic discourse (writing). I don’t like depersonalized writing, the kind that takes away writers’ voices. In a sense, I’ll bet I am still engaged in social-class warfare. I am saying to the dominating classes (the ones who profit off working-class labor), I speak. I was not born into your class, but I have my voice.