Case Study: The Need to Teach About Class

The tangled discourse about class in the U.S. seems to be richly illustrated in this exchange about a panel on High Class, Low Class Web Design at South by Southwest. In this post, Christopher Fahey, the moderator, describes the panel and also links to bloggers who were at the session and wrote about the presentations and the Q and A as they happened.

We could start with the judgmental language of the panel title, but what is even more troubling for me is that these panelists and bloggers (seemingly all highly educated) seem to have no common referents for talking about class, few perspectives outside of their own experiences to draw from, little common language about what class might be.

The only references in this entire written exchange are to, to Paul Fusell’s book on class, and alas, to Ruby Payne.

Fahey writes that he did seem some substantive analysis:

Notably the general observation that technology could potentially serve as a very powerful social class flattening agent, and in many ways it is in fact already doing so. User-generated content, blogs, etc, are putting the tools of design into everyone’s hands, dismantling the top-down model of publishing and, by extension, design itself.

Yet these points –of access to information and access to the tools of public voice –seem to be somewhat lost in discussion of whether poor and working class people simply have poor taste.

One of the bloggers does mention that an audience participant noted that aesthetic “standards” can, in fact, be constructed as barriers to mobility. It’s not clear if that comment got much response.

Fahey mentions that they had a huge turnout for the panel. Interest in class seems high these days. Informed discourse about class may, perhaps, still be a way off.

2 thoughts on “Case Study: The Need to Teach About Class

  1. Christopher Fahey March 12, 2007 / 12:37 pm

    Thanks for checking out my post-mortem. I’ll admit that I am totally unqualified to lead a discourse on class and web design. But since nobody else seems to ever have even tried to do it, I thought I’d give it a start with the limited tools, terms, and contacts I have at my disposal.

    As for the title of the panel, the whole point was to expose the prejudices inherent in class hierarchies. I was careful to articulate about two dozen different euphemisms we use for evaluating and describing class, including the candy-coated euphemism “working class”, but still some people who purport to be extra-sensitive to the grip class has on society are the first ones to bash those of us who try to question it from outside of academia. Ironic, eh?

    That’s one of the things that makes having a class dialogue so difficult — when people try to even open the lid just a crack for a discussion, they get beat down for minor things like their choice of words. I tried to make language and euphemism a non-issue in my intro, but many people still get hung up on words anyway, it seems, and would rather bash someone’s language then allow a dialogue to occur.

    It sucks to open a dialogue about class and then be dinged right away for being uninformed about it. Sure, I am uninformed. Does that disqualify me from talking about it?

    Also, I have no idea who Ruby Payne is. The name never came up.

  2. janevangalen March 12, 2007 / 2:38 pm


    Here are just a few of the things that I think that we agree on:

    1. Technology has the potential to level playing fields of class (and other sources of inequities), and too few people are talking or thinking about that.

    2. It’s very difficult to generate discussion about class, in part because we don’t have common language, we’re often not even clear about our own class backgrounds, and in fact, we live in a culture that actively denies the existence of class.

    I think that had your panel been about race or gender or sexuality, there would have been critical masses of people on the panel and in the audience who had all read some of the same things or at least knew some of the frameworks of issues under consideration. People would have clearly been identifiable as speaking from personal experience or, instead, as speaking on behalf of others when they contributed to the discussion.

    Instead, when we open the door to talk about class, we tend to not get to the “what next” questions because we’re still talking about what “it” is (or even if “it” is something we need bother talking about).

    All of which makes discussion about class very challenging.

    3. I’m not sure if we can agree on this last point or not, so I’ll throw it out there to look at together: Given the sorry state of discourse about class, people can take for granted that others share common meaning when they don’t, or that others share their sense of humor. All of us who write for unseen audiences understand that language can be touchy.

    But in the end:
    Your posting and the links to the many blogs written during the session (and then the subsequent comments made on those blogs) presented a unique opportunity to witness an unfolding dialogue about class. The entire dialogue made for a fascinating read, and it was on this entire dialogue that I attempted to write.

    I do wish that I could have heard the whole session.

    Thanks for coming here to comment.


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