Chalk Talk with Nicole Godard: Social Class and “The Great Gatsby”

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Last year, during a writing conference conducted on Zoom, a student admitted in her college essay project that she had “always been afraid to tell people where [she] lives.” She then revealed that she lived in a trailer park, a fact she had managed to conceal for most of her life, until the pandemic brought her class into her home.

In these strange days of virtual learning, we learned a lot about each other. We learned who had grandparents living at home with them, who shared a room with a sibling, who had reliable Wi-Fi, who had a desk to work on, and so on. During my lecture with this student, I discovered a few things: 1) We were all learning a lot more about each other’s social class situation than we had anticipated; and 2) many of us didn’t know how to talk about it.

Although this student expressed anxiety about her life situation, she also did not tie her situation to any specific class status and struggled to find the vocabulary to express what she was trying. to say. As I began to pay more attention to her, I discovered that she was just one of my students who had difficulty expressing the reality of their class situation or the impact it had on their ability to access education.

The students spoke clearly about their racial and gender identity in their college essays, but circumvented their class status. When pressed to discuss what they knew about social class, they made vague references to Marx, the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, labels with which they did not really identify.

When social class is explicitly discussed, whether in social or academic contexts, it is most often defined in relation to material – to wealth, property and work. However, what social theorists like Pierre Bourdieu, Julie Lindquist and Julie Bettie reveal in their research is that social class is not just a political identity, but a cultural identity, “a sense of place in society. ‘cultural economy of meaning’. (Bettie, 2014), in which class identity is experienced and expressed both materially and emotionally.

In my work developing a curriculum that emphasizes a treatment of social class that emphasizes cultural identity, I used three concepts of class as key terms that guided the student literary analysis of “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. As students read the novel, they identify and explain how class performance (how class status is expressed in both consumption and behavior), cultural capital (the symbolic and cultural knowledge that can signal the belonging to or exclusion from a group) and class wounding (feelings of anxiety or alienation caused by the perception of one’s own class difference) functioned in the novel as a whole (Bettie, 2014; Lindquist 2004).

In my experience, teaching “The Great Gatsby” through a traditional Marxist perspective (who “has” and who “hasn’t”) has consistently yielded poor results, with students falling into arguments about the American Dream or clichés about how “money can”. not buy happiness. I hoped that, armed with a lens that conceptualized class as more than just political identity or material reality, students would not only be able to produce more sophisticated analyzes of Fitzgerald’s characters, but also perhaps transfer their understanding to their classroom life and reality.

After being taught key classroom concepts, developing a shared vocabulary with which to discuss social class, and consistently positioning social class as an emotionally lived identity, students began to develop complex literary analyzes that interpreted character behaviors as expressions of class status. and anxieties, rather than mere literary whims.

In a post-unit interview, one student admitted, “I didn’t focus on the class issues at all when I first read it, I…thought it was just a triangle type thing. in love, but looking back you realize what a long line of lower class people dying because of the upper class.

Another student explained that her perception of her own class status had changed as a result of the unit and helped her understand that her anxieties about seeing her classmates see her room via Zoom calls were an expression of their class identity.

In the end, my students produced some of the most sophisticated analyzes of “The Great Gatsby” that I have seen and came away with a better understanding of their own class identities. English teachers have long been on a mission to tackle complex social issues such as race and gender through literary studies. For teachers who hope to treat social class with the same complexity and sophistication, a social class lens that takes into account both the material and the cultural can help students navigate their social class experiences more effectively.

Nicole Godard is an AP Literature and Composition Instructor and Director of Curriculum and Instruction at Hampden Charter School of Science in Chicopee. For more information on his critical framework, studies and curriculum, see his article “Beyond Marx: Cultural Social Class Analysis in the English Language Arts Classroom” in the March 2022 issue of English Journal. Or you can email the author at ngodard@hampdencharter.org.


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