These are the dog days of August in Mississippi, and, yet, despite the heat, school has begun, and Rust has welcomed its new class of nearly four hundred freshpeople. I've met with my own group of eager millennials thrice already, and, if their enthusiasm holds, there may be much for Mississippi, indeed America, indeed the world--to be excited about.
Our second meeting of Honors Composition I--after a first day of introductions to each other and to course goals, we dove right into Stanley Fish's "Getting Coffee is Hard to Do." This is one of few selections from our reader that gets me excited, and I chose it because it provides a ground-level view of changing economy. Though one student rightly pointed out that Fish's piece might be viewed as a process essay, Fish's aim actually would seem to be less a practical matter of showing readers how one gets coffee these days than it is an ironic assessment of change in consumer experience of such a simple activity. It may be that Fish, a well-known literary critic, calls our--meaning Americans'--attention to an increased complexity of ordinary acts as social commentary on our state of busy-ness; we have become ever-working satellites unto ourselves, orbiting around friends with whom we share a cup and engaging in some ways, to some degree maybe, the semi-natural world around us. Clearly, Fish prefers the good old days when coffee choices were limited to maybe caffeinated and decaffeinated, when one sat, not stood, to order the morning elixir, and when a waitress served it within three minutes or less. Current scenes of eager consumers scrambling around coffee houses looking for a place to sit amidst open barrels of coffee beans are a cause of superficial cognitive dissonance for Fish, who feigns puzzlement as well at a labor shift that has put consumers to work doing things we used to pay others to do.
"Getting Coffee is Hard to Do" appeared in the New York Times as an Op-Ed in , a lifetime ago. Americans have by now accepted seemingly without question the labor shift that Depression era-born Fish perhaps laments. In fact, I would venture to say that the shift has been absorbed into the consciousness of the most active laborers, precariats, as writer Natasha Singer refers to them in a more recent New York Times tech piece. Precariats are both those who appear to have quickly accepted and adjusted to the new economy as it is developing and the masses of those who will sooner or later have but little choice to. Precariats work for Uber and Lyft, new Internet-based enterprises that represent themselves as limousine services but whose workers drive their own vehicles, handle no cash as they receive payment online, and rely on their smartphones for notification of a new fare. Precariats gain some sense of independence--a choice not to accept every fare, to some degree, choice over when to work--for the sacrificing of supports that belong to the height of the wage era--unionization and benefits among other "rights."
As my honor students thought of various implications of Fish's indirect critique, they seemed to express an overall adjustment to the current status quo, which may not look like status quos of old since it is, on the surface of things, growing and changing constantly. As one student put it in a short writing assignment on innovations, people are creating new apps daily. I don't think this is much of an exaggeration if it is an exaggeration at all. The students seem optimistic about fitting into this level of activity. The world that makes Fish tired, the snatching and grabbing or polite instrusions into his personal physical space by people finding on stands rather than on tables the various sweeteners and creamers that make scorched beans palatable, the current generation seems to be comfortable with. Perhaps they are born self-reliant, "raised" by a super-mediated world to be busy.
So much may this be so that, when we discussed those people who may not adjust to the creative consumer economy, the students sounded a conservative note, one that I indicated to them shares an affinity with critics of social welfare programs. When I asked them to explain their sometimes Darwinian-like views, they responded that they had spent their lives witnessing abuses of social welfare. Too many people even in a Walmart-to-work era, these students seemed to think, had become comfortable on the dole. These students seemed almost angry, deeply disappointed, by their family's reliance on food stamps and other services, but, refusing to be demoralized, they themselves have instead chosen optimism about their own possibilities in the wide, wide world. It seems to go without saying that they see a place for themselves in new economies.
Some of the students were, however, quiet, and yet others seemed to be uncomfortable in their desks as they listened to rhetoric from their peers about choices. What about the homeless, one asked. "They don't have an address; they don't have the same choices as everyone else." A few others chimed in, and heads nodded, but, at the moment--too deep in our questioning to search the Internet--we had no statistics to show us how many individuals and families in America face homelessness within a year or longer. For the time being, the proponents of choice dominated the discussion although other objections to the hyper-production of the consumer economy found occasional voice. At least two students felt the economy's mantra--buy, buy, buy--to be simply a matter of greed either on the part of the producers, the part of the consumers, or both. These most silent ones were maybe concerned, as I am, about whether this state of things really can hold itself together, whether the Black-Friday-is-every day-world is sustainable and if it is, on the other hand, right. The apparent lethargy of these students was, as it turns out, righteous doubt.
At the end of our discussion, a young man raised his hand and asked me if I had expected a discussion of how one gets coffee these days to turn into a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of the welfare state. I nodded yes; discussions in my writing classes always develop in mostly organic ways. It is the job of my students to grab hold of an angle from which they may passionately write; it is also their job not to settle for easy answers but, rather, to struggle with issues that arise as they think through complex problems. Revolutionary writing, like the most critical of thought, is not best when forced into oversimplified processes or structures. We should I think allow writing classes to structure themselves organically as well. I am not the first to have suggested it. If we are not living exactly in a post-industrial era, if in fact, as a colleague suggested to me recently, we are going to be producing again on smaller scales, within our homes for instance, then the clock isn't going to serve all of us or even most of us equally well. Some of us, many of us, will need to be unclocked.
The challenge before me, as I enter what may very well be the last leg of my career as a writing professor, is to imagine and create various ways of unclocking so as to support the aspirations of what must both of necessity and of inspiration become prosumers, rather than consumers, inventors of both things and ideas. Indeed, this is what must be done if we are to support the enthusiasm and confidence of college youth, who are not off to the massive factory in four years and probably not even to cubicle-land. To teach otherwise may be to check preemptively the enthusiasm of the young, and that would in my opinion be both irresponsible and wrong.