Brooke, 1988, “Underlife and Writing Instruction”

Robert. “Underlife and Writing Instruction.” On Writing Research: The Braddock Essays, 1975-1998.
Ed. Lisa Ede. New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 1999. 229-241.

Brooke in 1998: "Now that we, as a field, understand this, perhaps the task
of the next ten years will be to imagine programs which increase the self’s
possible roles, widening the ways literacy is used in the celebration and
establishment of viable, sustainable communities" (241).

Big Idea
In his 1987 essay, "Underlife and Writing Instruction," Robert
builds on the sociological trope of "underlife" to characterize classroom
behaviors in writing instruction. Brooke’s is a comp-related rendering of
Goffman’s Asylums and Stigma bent on ethnographic studies of the behind
the scenes substrata of discourse in the writing classroom.  Brooke
contends that writing instructors must understand the fundament of "underlife"
because such scales of disruption underscore our aims in composition: attune
students to identity-staked information games, help students to ride out the
grand vacillations among systematized roles, create ways for students to try on
more transgressive, contestatory, even counter-hegemonic agilities (as opposed
to stances) toward critical literacy and toward disruptive rhetorics. Brooke
teases out an interesting distinction between contained underlife
(resistant yet functional within the structure) and disruptive (attempts
to undermine and reset the institution) underlife.  His ethnographic method
amounts to classroom observations; he taps into the murmur and buzz among
students–the hum of quiet interchange unnoticed by the

Wondering About
Reading this essay against a recent wrangle on techrhet this week, I carry
forward a strong impression that Brooke’s work should resurface more
frequently, that it might inform tendencies in writing instruction that bow to
the pressures to vocationalize students, to make them over into so many obedient
widget-makers.  I probably ought to back up and explain.  Basically, a
lister on techrhet left a link to
this article from Fox News
.  The article makes a case for the risky
messages about identity inherent in cryptic email addresses. For example, probably isn’t appropriate for a resume.  The article
summarily suggests that the most decorous, normal candidates get jobs:

“There’s no way we’d ever consider hiring someone
with a silly e-mail address," said a human resource manager at a major
financial institution, who wished not to be identified.

The bottom line, experts say, is that job seeking is
a sales game, and resumes, cover letters, e-mails, Web sites and voice mail
messages are all part of the ad campaign applicants put out about themselves.

"People have to remember that they are a
product," Holland said. "You are the most important product you will
ever represent.”

The article link and the exchange that followed was lively,
interesting.  As unsettled as I am by list culture, I even participated
with a remark or two.  By and large, it was far less about inappropriate
email addresses than our senses–as writing instructors–that we ought to steep
the classroom in hegemonic forces, that we ought to shape curricula to the
pressures that bear down beyond academe, that we ought to mold our pedagogies to
the market realities, and that anything short of best preparing students for
future employment shortchanges them and reflects poorly on academic programs and
institutions.  Nutshell of a much meatier issue, here.

With that, I want to return to Brooke with the question, "underlife, under
what?"  In other words, once the teacher and the students relish in
disruption, what is the glue that congeals whatever subordinates them? What is
that pressure?  Its source?  "Underlife," especially as
Brooke characterizes it through his observations, suggests students are
incredibly savvy about playing "information games" in the classroom,
about being moderately dutiful, about appealing to the teacher’s biases,
about wooing the teacher’s approval for successful acts.  And that, I
guess, is the connection between the Fox article and Brooke: 1.  Students
are incredibly adept at negotiating identities and making plays on
representations of themselves that will win favorable regard.  2. 
Writing classrooms, unlike many places, ought to be a space for tentative
explorations of identities, consequences, transgression and subversions of
convention.  3.  Rhetoric is inherently tensional.  A lack of
discursive resistance (no need to compel assent, move, affect, charge,
communicate) is more or less a-rhetorical.  Yes?  

Brooke’s essay helped me think about recent recastings of  backchanneling–the
fuzzy ring of communication that carries off through media channels (blogs, IM,
conversation) following a formal speaking occasion. He notes students who work
on assignments during class or who "disrupt" the teacher-centered
classroom by talking with peers while the teacher is also talking.  So I
want to tuck Brooke away for his ethnographic methods and his conclusions about
"underlife"–a term that, perhaps, has been left back in 1987. 
It seems to be a useful term in application to blogging.  For my own
recall, I want to drop in bell hooks and Antonio Gramsci, too.  Teaching
to Transgress
and Gramsci’s Notebooks on hegemony seemed to run
faintly (and without specific mention) through Brooke’s essay.  And I
probably ought to look up Goffman’s Asylums and Stigma.  I hadn’t
heard of it until now; rings of Foucault and Bentham. 

One last note: Early in the essay, Brooke drops in mention of "real
academic success."  It involves the development of a particular kind
of identity according to the line that follows.  But this idea of roles and
disruption doesn’t get framed in terms of "real academic success"
later in the essay.  And I wondered about that.  Lots of side issues
might attach to it: grade inflation, WAC, the parsed worlds of
academe/outside.  But the adjective real stuck with me as I read,
especially as I read Brooke in light of the sanitized self arguments
churning through the techrhet list.  


"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" (229).

"My understanding of ‘underlife’ stems from Erving Goffman’s books Asylums
and Stigma
, although the concept has long been accepted in sociology. 
As presented in these books, the concept of underlife rests on three assumptions
about social interaction. First, a person’s identity is assumed to be a function
of social interaction.  Second, social interaction is assumed to be a
system of information games.  Third, social organizations are assumed to
produce roles for individuals which imply certain kinds of identities" (230).

"In Asylums, Goffman studies the underlife of a major American mental
hospital, and comes to the conclusion that underlife activities take two primary
forms.  First, there are disruptive forms of underlife, like those
engaged in by union organizers, ‘where the realistic intentions of the
participants are to abandon the organization or radically alter its structure.’
Second, there are contained forms of underlife, which attempt to fit into
‘existing institutional structures without introducing pressure for radical
change" (231).

"No one but the complete fanatic completely associates herself with only one
role–instead , the self is formed in the distance one takes from the roles one
is assigned" (232).

"The purpose of these evaluative comments, it seems, is the same purpose as
the other underlife activities–to assert one’s fundamental distance from the
classroom roles" (235).

"In ‘Reality, Consensus, and Reform,’ Greg Myers shows how wanting to teach
writing as a freeing process has historically been in conflict with (and
undercut by) the ideological purposes of the educational institution, and argues
that writing teachers need to recognize that ‘our interests are not the same as
those of the institutions that employ us, and that the improvement of our work
will involve social changes’ (170)" (237).

"Alongside these suggestions for classroom reform are powerful indictments of
the traditional writing classroom for being teacher-centered rather than
student-centered, focused on the product rather than process, being oppressive
rather than liberating" (238).

"When we look at writing instruction from the perspective of underlife, it
appears that the purpose of our courses is to allow students to substitute one
kind of underlife for another.  Instead of the naive, contained form they
normally employ, we’re asking them to take on a disruptive form–a whole stance
towards their social world that questions it, explores it, writes about it"


  1. Good stuff, Derek. The idea of student underlife intrigues me. For sometime, I’ve seen pedagogy as a series of tasks and activities that allow me to listen to students, to see how what they have to say can help them develop as writers, for whatever ultimate purpose.

    Student writing should be disruptive. That’s why the developments I document on my May 29 blog posting are so disturbing. I’ll be interested in how you read that posting against your reading of Brooke.

  2. Such a long delay getting to this, John, I’m not sure what I can add to the discussions unfolding from your excellent post on criminalizing writing. Underlife certainly brings to mind ideas of subverting normalcy, of transgressive thinking and behaving that walk the criminal-civil boundary.

    I think what bothers me most about the cases you cite and about the charges being made against the Critical Arts Ensemble (the Buffalo prof(s) charged with conspiring to terror for making art from bio-tech equipment) is the shortening leash of the law against the arts and humanities. I mean, it’s not new, of course, for educational sites to be interrogated by folks who don’t understand what happens there or, in misunderstanding, assume that freely expressive or transgressive spirits are detrimental to congenial social order. Might be some truth in that. I take for granted my own generous sense of what is appropriate and acceptable and right–slanted by my training and my own liberal disposition. How to narrow the gap? How to help the hand-cuffers and fist-pounders understand that a police state is a greater threat than a transgressive spirit? I don’t know. It blurs together with the efforts of teachers who aspire to disable underlife, I guess, or to deny themselves room to play against the formidable (often homogenizing) forces of a field or an institution or a discipline.

    I’m kind of worming off course, now, but there’s certainly a firm and exploration-worthy link between Brooke’s notion of underlife (from Goffman), free speech, writing instruction, and the alarming rash of police actions against expressive/communicative acts in recent weeks. As if bad grades (for disrupting Teacher) and obscurity (what art?) weren’t enough. Now we’ve got handcuffs to bear. All in the name of sweet something.

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