A Carpenter’s Daughter: A Working-Class Woman in Higher Education
By Renny Christopher Sense Publishers, 2009
Reviewed by Nicholas Coles
Renny Christopher began writing about the hazards of class mobility through education in the essay “A Carpenter’s Daughter” in This Fine Place So Far from Home: Voices of Academics from the Working Class (1995).1 Now with the publication of her own book, we have the full story of what she’s been through and what she’s figured out as “a working-class woman in higher education.” It makes for powerful reading, packed with insight for those of us who teach working-class students or work on class issues, in any field of study. If, as Janet Galligani Casey argues, “the working-class student’s difference, implicitly constituted as lack, is what college is designed to erase,” how can she resist that erasure, and what are the costs of that struggle?2 And for those who stay and make a career in academe, what are the resources and responsibilities we bring to our teaching and scholarship?
A Carpenter’s Daughter is an educational memoir, sharing kinship with Lives on the Boundary (1989) by Mike Rose and Hunger of Memory (1982) by Richard Rodriguez, fellow academics from the working class who have informed Christopher’s own self-understanding. Their books—like hers—are narrative, analytical, and polemical by turns, vivid stories of schooling that broaden out into arguments about class, race, and education. Like Rose, having gotten through the gates of the academy, Christopher has stayed in higher education, committed to working out what is possible for the students Rose calls “underprepared” in classrooms that take their histories and their intelligence seriously. Like Rodriguez, whose academic career dead-ended in the dusty archives of the British Museum, Christopher focuses on the pain and losses of what Rodriguez calls the “radical self-reformation” enforced by education. Much as the alienation of the bright working-class student is intensified by Rodriguez’s racial status as a Mexican-American scholarship boy, gender plays a similar role in the experience of a bookish and isolated working-class girl from rural Southern California who is now, to her amazement, in a university position of “power and responsibility.” A Carpenter’s Daughter represents, in one sense, a woman’s version of those two men’s well-known accounts. And like them, in writing about her “battles in the academic world,” Christopher is telling “a story about more than just me.” She is writing on behalf of those for whom educational mobility entails a form of homelessness. Her book is, she says, “a critique of the educational system— starting with elementary school—that has made me what I am” (p. xvi).
In school, she was bored by a drill-andskill curriculum designed to train children of the working class for their future roles. “Earmarked for success” by her teachers, but set apart from peers by this and by her tomboy ways, she was essentially friendless through her school years. She enjoyed working alongside her carpenter father, and was fascinated by space travel—the ambition to reach “escape velocity” and discover what was out there. She escaped as far as Oakland to attend Mills College, “the most beautiful place I had ever seen,” but struggled there socially, academically, and financially (p. 41). Her clothes and speech clashed with those of the children of privilege on campus, her high school had not prepared her for the critical thinking and independent work required at a liberal arts college, and there was never enough money. Her college years were punctuated by long periods of dropping out, working low-wage jobs, and then going back to school for the opportunity she’d glimpsed but missed before—to read, think, and write. After an eventual B.A. from Mills and an M.A. from San Jose State, that opportunity seemed to arrive with a teaching fellowship in English at UC-Santa Cruz.
The book’s central section, “Fragments from Graduate School,” presents Christopher’s most focused account of what Richard Wright—another lonely class-traveler she admires—called the “crossed-up feeling” and “psyche pain” of living and working in a culture designed to deny your identity and, in Christopher’s case, to change it.3 The psychic costs of this process included a constant fear of failing or being found out as a fraud—always expecting the “real teacher” to show up and take over her class—and a compensating tendency to take on too much and try too hard. And always underneath, but bursting out in seminar comments deemed too “loud” or too “passionate,” is anger at the classism of professors, fellow students, and the literary canon itself. Christopher’s vignettes from graduate school also offer treasured moments of connection with fellow students from the working class, as well as a compelling account of her first time teaching a course in working-class and multi-ethnic literature—a turning point in her academic life.
By dint of teaching at a community college while writing her dissertation on Vietnam War literature, Christopher earned her Ph.D. and a faculty position in the California State University (CSU) system. In retrospect, looking across from the dilapidated neighborhood she lived in to the orderly lawns and buildings of the UC campus, it seemed a miracle she got that far: “I lived in that entrapped, desperate state for years, working as a cog in a machine, desperately afraid of not having the rent money and the food money, trying to write but never coming home at the end of the day with enough energy to do it, just surviving. I believed, then, I would never have another life” (p. 114).
Though the struggle for survival is won, the other life she makes for herself as a faculty member remains one of conflict and isolation. At CSU-Stanislaus in the Central Valley, she is positioned as “an atheist bisexual socialist poet” in the rural Bible Belt. Her eventual move to the new CSU-Channel Islands campus in Ventura County, where she is now an administrator, has been more positive. It provides a vivid reminder, however, of where she is from: the campus is housed in the old psychiatric hospital where Christopher’s grandmother, “an angry drunk,” had been given electroshock therapy some sixty years earlier. While it appears she has finally found a place in academe for her working-class self, there is no clear sense of having “arrived” because the institution itself, she insists, can never be a “home.”
Christopher is cautious about how far her experiences can be taken as representative: “I don’t know how much of my story comes from my own individual idiosyncrasies, my own particular family, and how much comes from the structures of class, race, gender, and sexual orientation. It is impossible to know” (p. xvi). As much as we get a structural understanding of the “hidden injuries of class” as they are experienced by many who have made the same journey, we get to know Christopher herself. We learn about her bisexuality, her failed marriages, her constant struggle with depression, her occasional joys and epiphanies. We find we are in company with a woman of strong and fluctuating feelings, sharp insight, and ruthless honesty, who is also a skilled storyteller.
The unique style and structure of A Carpenter’s Daughter support this dialectic of individual and collective experiences. The text is composed in a series of numbered fragments: swatches of family history, narrative vignettes, poems, journal entries, dialogues, lectures, film critiques, and readings of key authors for the study of class, family, and education in the U.S. Her vignettes of workplace episodes and classroom exchanges are especially telling.
Christopher gets inside the labor processes of both blue-collar and academic work, and the contrasts between them. She writes about house-framing with her father, working as “one of the guys,” feeling the competence her knowledge of carpentry gives her, and feeling, too, the fatigue that hits particular muscles by day’s end. She captures the pleasure of hanging out with her hairdresser friends, among the conversations and scents of the salon. Her accounts of print-shop jobs she held during her college years—typesetting other people’s words in noisy workshops when she was desperate to be composing her own—are darker. Now, she writes, “Here I am alone at a keyboard,” in a “world where being alone and quiet is a necessary condition to work” (p. xiii, p. 147). But how does this academic labor compare—she asks—with that other physical labor, in the value it produces and in what it requires of the person performing it? Like Mike Rose in The Mind at Work (2005), she values the intelligence enacted in work considered manual—“My dad is smart. He’s not educated, but he’s smart” (p. 102)—and she insists that being educated does not make one a “better person.” What it does make one, and what it allows one to do, is her constant question throughout the book.
When not at her keyboard, of course, Christopher also labors in classrooms and professional gatherings, and her saving encounters with students and colleagues are part of the picture too. “One thing I love about the university,” she writes, “is that it is ground where people can come together across vast differences—gender, ethnicity,” as well as class (p. 87). Beyond her own campus, working with others in the field of working-class studies, she “discovered that perhaps we can make a dent in the academy—we can create a new field, almost from scratch, by combining our experience and knowledge with the intellectual skills the academy has taught us” (p. 155). Her book supports this project by offering a counter to the master-narrative about higher education’s promise for workingclass students and by pointing out how the institution’s procedures and mission might be shifted toward an alternative definition of “success” for all students. Christopher’s concrete proposals include:
1. Making class, and the vocabulary required to discuss it accurately, a focus in classrooms across the disciplines, as gender and race have become.
2. Adopting pedagogical practices of the democratic classroom. These are better for everyone, but especially for workingclass, female, and minority students.
3. Dismantling the structural and funding inequities that divide the elite from the working-class institutions (in California, the UC and CSU systems).
4. Instituting a ranking system for universities “based on whether an institution and its graduates would move the world in the direction of justice” (p. 172).
Her book might not quite meet Christopher’s highest ambition for it: “I would like this book to be a revolutionary instrument. I would love to change hearts and minds so no more working-class students will suffer in higher education.” But if Ray Mazurek is correct in claiming that “a working-class perspective may be exactly what is needed for understanding the university and, to use Marc Bousquet’s phrase, ‘how it works,’” A Carpenter’s Daughter is a major contribution to that critical project.4
1. C. L. Barney Dews and Carolyn Leste Law, eds., This Fine Place So Far from Home: Voices of Academics from the Working Class (Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1995), 137-140.
2. “Diversity, Discourse, and the Working-Class Student,” Academe 91, no. 4 (2005): 33-36.
3. Richard Wright, American Hunger (New York: Harper, 1983), 7.
4. Ray Mazurek, “Work and Class in the Box-Store University: Autobiographies of Working-Class Academics,” College Literature 36, no. 4 (Fall 2009): 148