“American meritocracy is validated and sustained by the deep-rooted belief in equal opportunity. But can we really say that kinds like those I taught have equal access to America’s educational resources? Consider not only the economic and political barriers they face, but the fact, too, that judgments about their ability are made at a very young age, and those judgments, accurate or not, affect the curriculum they receive, their place in the school, the way they’re defined institutionally.”
— Mike Rose

Here is a book that I love unequivocally. Mike Rose’s Lives on the Boundary: A Moving Account of the Struggles and Achievements of America’s Educationally Underprepared is many things: a theoretical discussion of teaching composition, a history of said teaching, a confessional memoir, a literacy narrative–and yet, it is also more than those. Ostensibly, it’s a collection of stories about Rose’s upbringing, his history in school, his path to becoming a teacher and tutorial center administrator–also of the students, so many students, he worked with. He dispenses observations, advice, motivation, lesson plan ideas all with the casual flair of a master storyteller. This is a book that understands what it is to be a teacher, with all the love, work, frustration, and joy that comes with it. This book speaks to me affectively, aesthetically, intellectually–and I could go on, but I feel my point is made.

The quote above is a central theme of the text: Marginalized students are often branded early as inadequate to the task of academic study, which only pushes them further onto the fringe, beyond the inclusion in any “legitimate” academic community. Marginalized or underprepared students are too often treated as problems, as very literally unequal to the task of academic study–they should be shuttled off to fix-it shops, remediation programs, junior colleges. Rose points out the myriad socioeconomic, cultural, linguistic, and cognitive variations in students that might lead to their being relegated to second-class status in the academic community. He shows how the politics of the university exacerbate this, addresses how teachers immersed in their own disciplines but not in the realities of their students’ backgrounds can become obstacles instead of facilitators, and challenges the tendency to reduce non-traditional students (if my use of that vague umbrella term can be forgiven) to a problem, a crisis–something to be excised from, rather than embraced as a part of, the academic community.

I do not believe for a moment that I can articulate Rose’s thoughts more clearly than he does, so I will quote here the final paragraph of his last chapter (discounting the book’s epilogue and appendices). It manages to be patriotic, revolutionary, and progressive all in one breath–it’s almost a secular prayer, a philosophy of how we ought to be. A quarter of a century later, I don’t think we’ve managed it yet. He writes:

“We are in the middle of an extraordinary social experiment: the attempt to provide education for all members of a vast pluralistic democracy. To have any prayer of success, we’ll need many conceptual blessings: A philosophy of language and literacy that affirms the diverse sources of linguistic competence and deepens our understanding of the ways class and culture blind us to the richness of those sources. A perspective on failure that lays open the logic of error. An orientation toward the interaction of poverty and ability that undercuts simple polarities, that enables us to see simultaneously the constraints poverty places on the play of mind and the actual mind at play within those constraints. We’ll need a pedagogy that encourages us to step back and consider the threat of the standard classroom and that shows us, having stepped back, how to step forward to invite a student across the boundaries of that powerful room. Finally, we’ll need a revised store of images of educational excellence, ones closer to egalitarian ideals–ones that embody the reward and turmoil of education in a democracy, that celebrate the plural, messy human reality of it. At heart, we’ll need a guiding set of principles that do not encourage us to retreat from, but move us closer to, an understanding of the rich mix of speech and ritual and story that is America.”
— Mike Rose (Lives on the Boundary 238)

The biggest challenge I’ve faced with this text is not over-quoting it. I feel that I could easily quote any given passage from the bulk of Rose’s book and make of it a strong argument for my own academic interests, but of course one must limit oneself. So, I have sought to provide representative samples and concise reflections on how this text fits my course of study–and I can only hope that I have done justice to the work.

Questions and Answers

1. Considering Adichie’s description of being unable to perceive herself as included in a particular community until she had seen herself welcome there, how can we use Johnson’s pleasure-oriented “renegade rhetoric” to create a more inclusive academic community that encourages students to be active, engaged participants rather than feel academics are a toil inflicted upon them?

Rose does not advocate for anything quite so specific as Johnson’s renegade rhetoric, but he absolutely argues for an approach to education that seeks to include students as serious participants. He targets remediation in particular, which tends to treat students as only partial or marginal members of the academic community. He notes that less-than-privileged students’ “social marginality, then, is reinforced by discourse and, as happened to me during my first year at Loyola, they might well withdraw, retreat to silence.” (Rose 193). Rose’s methods, as he outlines them, frequently do seem quite playful–engaging the students as serious people while allowing their ideas to play out across the page, out loud, in pictures, and between human beings. It is very easy to imagine Rose’s assessment of these challenge as being a ready space for Johnson’s renegade rhetoric–the system that marginalizes many students creates an ample opportunity for it. I also include here Rose’s description of the too-frequent gap between students’ expectations and those of the academy:

“It is not unusual for students to come to the university with conceptualizations of disciplines that are out of sync with academic reality. […] If they like to read novels, and they elect a literature course, they’ll expect to talk about characters and motive and plot, but instead they’re asked to situate the novel amid the historical forces that shaped it, to examine rhetorical and stylistic devices and search the prose for things that mean more than they seem to mean. […] And so goes the litany of misdirection. This dissonance between the academy’s and the students’ definitions of disciplines makes it hard for students to get their bearings with material: to know what’s important, to see how the pieces fit together, to follow an argument, to have a sense of what can be passed over lightly.”
— Mike Rose (Lives on the Boundary 192)

2. In the text, identify a specific community that is discussed. What role does inclusion in and engagement with that community play in forming an identity (both as an individual and as part of said community) that serves to facilitate the goals of liberation and critical consciousness as put forth by Paulo Freire and bell hooks?

While Rose may not operate in quite the same tradition as Freire and hooks–his pedagogy in this text is not one of revolution or activism-driven social justice–he nonetheless engages richly with the concept of identity and with the opportunities for personal liberation–as limited and varied as they may be–offered by education and literacy. Rose does not make the mistake of treating literacy as a “magic bullet” that will cure all ills and open all opportunities, but he does treat literacy as a goal–without dismissing the pre-existing literacies of students (like Lucia, whom he mentions in my quotation in the next question). Much of Rose’s effort critiques the academy’s habit of assessing students, labeling them, and placing them in categories that oppress rather than liberate. This unquestionably operates within the tradition of liberation, even if it operates at a more personal, less “revolutionary” scale than some other scholars and thinkers.

It is also key to note Rose’s attitude toward the problem of error. Error, which can be a powerful occasion for learning, can also be used to malign, to minimize, and to delegitimize. His observations resonate with Johnson’s observations about the implicit masochism of a system that punishes and rewards students with grades as a primary mode of motivation. Moreover, this attitude toward “correctness” versus “error” serves to reinforce social barriers and hierarchies. He writes, “Through all my experiences with people struggling to learn, the one thing that strikes me most is the ease with which we misperceive failed performance and the degree to which this misperception both reflects and reinforces the social order. Class and culture erect boundaries that hinder our vision–blind us to the logic of error and the everpresent stirring of language–and encourage the designation of otherness, difference, deficiency” (Rose 205).

3. How can seeking to orient toward pleasure and satisfaction as pedagogical modes be designed to specifically address the concepts of varied learning styles, multiple intelligences, and the highly varied backgrounds (personal, cultural, academic) of students?

This idea is sprinkled widely through Rose’s text, implicit in much of his reasoning and clearly present in his narratives. For example, he describes the narrow view of literacy that is often taken, excluding the aptitudes and experience they carry with them: “Students like Lucia are often thought to be poor readers or to have impoverished vocabularies (though Lucia speaks two languages); I’ve even heard students like her referred to as culturally illiterate (though she has absorbed two cultural heritages)” (Rose 184). So, clearly Rose sees the problem of what happens when pedagogy fails to address the students’ backgrounds, experiences, and aptitudes. I’m not certain that Rose has the same answer, here, as I am focused on with my own studies, but certainly our ideas seem, at the least, compatible.

Therefore, while I do not find his discussion specifically oriented toward pleasure and satisfaction, the idea is clearly present in the text. Rose demonstrates the greater success students have, time and again, when they are able to find satisfaction–even pleasure–in the work they do, rather than being expected to invest in empty exercises or material that lies entirely beyond their interest or experience. Certainly, Rose asserts that students can come to work with such materials, but he also emphasizes the importance of working to make the materials relevant to students instead of expecting students to leap aboard without any real way to connect.

4. What can we learn about learning, both as students and teachers, by studying the ostensibly enjoyment-oriented concept and practice of “play”? What connects pleasure and play–enjoyment and engagement–to learning, cognition, and individual development?

As I’ve noted, Rose doesn’t explicitly delve into the question of play, but he certainly makes room for the idea of playing with language. Rose draws many direct and powerful parallels to the question of students engaging with the work and even taking pleasure in it. Many of his anecdotes draw on this, illustrating how students bring diverse passions to the educational table–and how even that which seemingly lies outside their own experience can be made accessible to them. There is a strong vein of the teacher of literature at work, here, but for me one of the strongest examples came when Rose had a group of students studying poetry.

Of the poems the students wrote, Rose recalls, “These threw me. They were sentimental as could be, and the rhymes were strained, and the diction archaic. They were the kinds of poems all my schooling had trained me to dismiss. But the intentions and feelings behind the poems were present now, couldn’t be discounted, a clashing of aesthetics and human need” (Rose 163). This, for me, became a kind of controlling metaphor for the entire problem: Students’ experiences and interests, much like their poetry, are too frequently dismissed as unacademic, uncritical, inferior to the studies of the academy. By sharing this example of student poetry that did not fit the conventions of “good” poetry but that succeeded in expressing ideas and feelings, Rose illustrates the power of the freedom to play.

By letting the students explore their own expression and treating that expression just as seriously as the other materials in the course, Rose created an environment where students could be engaged in the work–because it was about them, about their interests, inclusive. I’m not certain that Rose specifically offers any direct, concise assessment of how this relates to learning and individual development, but it is plain to be observed across his many stories of students and learning.

5. In considering the concept of “inclusion,” how can a focus on student pleasure and engagement in academic pursuits serve to address fundamental questions of complex exclusion and divided identities? Consider this discussion in terms of a borderland, such as discussed by Gloria Anzaldúa in Borderlands/La Frontera. Students’ language is a kind of homeland for them, a place they have long occupied; what divisions and exclusions are we asking them to navigate (within and without) by asking them to learn to write and use language “correctly” without including their own pre-existing language—their own territory, as it were—into the process?

This is a thread that comes to the fore now and again in Rose’s book. The text is very much oriented to borders–even the title focuses on the concept of a “boundary”–and he brings many of them into focus. There are borders of access–socioeconomic class, literacies, educational backgrounds–as well as those of experience–personal challenges, hidden talents, culture–and of course, institutional borders created by the judgement of students based on limited considerations, labels that place them deep in zones of marginalization. Rose is well aware of the borders we ask students to cross, to operate within, to live between. What is key in my reading of his text is that Rose does not seek to dismiss the students’ homelands–of language, of culture, of history, of experience–but to treat them as foundations to build upon.

Drawing on Rose’s many anecdotes, it’s clear that he respects his students’ abilities outside the academy, their literacies outside of Standard Academic English. He objects pointedly to using “incorrectness” as a way to exclude or marginalize. He highlights the skill students bring to the classroom that go unnoticed by traditional academics. He points out their ability to write beautifully in different contexts, languages, modes. Perhaps most telling of all is this passage, wherein Rose offers up a metaphor for how education should and should not seek to connect to students: “A friend of mine recently suggested that education is one culture embracing another. It’s interesting to think of the very different ways that metaphor plays out. Education can be a desperate, smothering embrace, an embrace that denies the needs of the other. But education can also be an encouraging, communal embrace–at its best an invitation, an opening” (Rose 225).

A final quote, which seems well worth consideration in its own right:

“In higher education, there is a politically loaded distinction between ‘pure’ and  ‘applied’ study. Pure study is elevated because it putatively involves the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake–mathematics and literature are good examples; applied study (engineering, medicine, education), because it is situated in human affairs, is somehow tainted, is less–well–pure. What a bewildering distinction, I would have thought. What a silly, bloodless dichotomy.”
— Mike Rose (Lives on the Boundary 155)


Rose, Mike. Lives on the Boundary: A Moving Account of the Struggles and Achievements of America’s Educationally Underprepared. New York: Penguin, 1989. Print.

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