Underlife: What They’re Doing When I’m Doing What I’m Doing (Brooke)

Brooke, Robert. “Underlife and Writing Instruction.” The Norton Book of Composition Studies. 1st ed. New York: Norton, 2009. 721-732. Print.

Brooke is a funky kind of expressionist, drawing on sociological theory to make an argument for individualist pedagogy. The central concept in this article (one that Mueller picks up in “Digital Underlife in the Networked Writing Classroom,” which I’ll get to on this blog eventually) is “underlife”: the set of “behaviors which undercut the roles expected of participants in a situation” and that help individuals construct an identity that is different from the one assigned to them in a particular social context (721). According to Brooke, writing instruction is a substitutive activity, asking students to take on a disruptive form of underlife rather than a contained form–a disruptive (free) identity rather than a contained (coerced) one. He describes four types of underlife (generalized from classroom observations): using classroom materials differently from the teacher’s intention, commenting on the roles of the classroom, evaluating the activity of the classroom, and dividing activity between class activity and something else. Each of these is “contained” because they merely assert the student’s identity in relation to (distinguishing themselves from) what’s going on in that particular context and don’t actually change roles themselves. As Brooke describes:

“The point is not to disrupt the functioning of the classroom, but to provide the other participants in the classroom with a sense that one has other things to do, other interests, that one is a much richer personality than can be shown in this context” (728).

This isn’t “bad” per se. But it’s also not enough (from the disruptive expressivist writing teacher). Such a purpose hinges on Brooke’s assessment of the nature (ugh) of writing:

“Writing, in the rich sense of interactive knowledge creation advocated by theorists like Ann Berthoff […] and Janet Emig […] necessarily involves standing outside the roles and beliefs offered by a social institution–it involves questioning them, searching for new connections, building ideas that may be in conflict with accepted ways of thinking and action. Writing involves being able to challenge one’s assigned roles long enough that one can think originally; it involves living in conflict with accepted (expected) thought and action.” (721)

I can hear Berlin shuddering now–the original-thinking individual, critiquing the world from his subjectivity through the voice-endowed (i.e identity-developing) activity of writing. The definition is problematic–why is writing inherently critical? What about historical and technological (material) implications? It’s a messy definition.

For Brooke, the job of the writing teacher is to get the students out of their coopted “contained” underlife and into a new “disruptive” underlife–that of the writer: “we would like them to think of themselves as writers rather than as students” (729). This is based on what he notes is the “organizing assumption of composition instruction”–the discipline and the classroom are to “foster a particular identity or stance towards the world” (730). The identity of the writer, the autonomously acting author that “thinks in certain ways to solve certain problems” (731). Whatever those ways are, they seem to be highly generalized in this piece; I’m not sure that ‘voice’ is enough. The job of the writing teacher is not, then, to embrace underlife in their own classroom, it seems, but rather offer their students a different underlife, to be a sort of underlife to the institution they are found in. As per Mike Rose and Greg Myers, both of whom Brooke cites, the interests of the writing classroom are the interests of the individual, not those of the institution and not those of the community.

Underlife is an important idea–especially in our network-infused writing culture. But I’m not sold on the expressionist stuff as much as Brooks might like. Identity, yes. But it’s more social than this, and the writing classroom is much more than an identity factory, I’m afraid.

More on underlife in the future.


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