Robert Brooke on ‘underlife’

I really like Brooke’s concept of the “underlife” — or, more accurately, his use of Erving Goffman’s concept of “underlife.” Brooke defines the underlife as “the activities (or information games) individuals engage in to show that their identities are different from or more complex than the identities assigned them by organizational roles” (142). There are two forms of underlife, the ‘disruptive,’ in which people try to alter the roles assigned to them or to others, and ‘contained,’ in which people fit into roles without trying to radically change those roles (143). Students regularly engage in contained underlife, e.g., reading the paper while in class, writing notes to each other instead of taking lecture notes, doing homework while in class, texting on the cell phone. Brooke found that most students’ underlife activities were actually course-related:

The point is not to disrupt the functioning of the classroom, but to provide the other participants in the classroom with a sense that one has other things to do, other interests, that one is a much richer personality than can be shown in this context. All these activities, in short, allow the student to take a stance toward her participation in the classroom, and show that, while she can succeed in this situation, her self is not swallowed up by it. The interesting parts of herself, she seems to say, are being held in reserve. (148)

The writing teacher, however, engages in disruptive forms of underlife, asking students and the teacherly self to take on new roles that are not traditional to education. We ask students to take on the roles of “writers” rather than the role of “passive student” (148-150).

In conclusion, Brooke wants teachers to ask students to take on disruptive forms of underlife instead of their usual “naive, contained forms” of underlife (151).

Pretty cool, eh? I think this is an interesting way to understand behavior in the classroom. What I thought was most fascinating, though, was how Brooke noted that student underlife was often related to coursework. Like conversations that the teacher thought might be way off-topic were in fact spurred by the topic and an application of the topic to the students’ real lives.

Goffman, though, was studying prison and work situations, I think. What, then, is the prison like if the guard asks prisoners to suddenly be “disruptive,” that is, take on roles that are not that of “prisoner”? If that is what we ask students to do, to identify as “writer,” or “citizen,” or “agent,” how do we function as that disrupter?

Hmm… interesting questions. It’d also be interesting to see how student “contained underlife” comes out when the classroom goes a bit more public, like on classroom blogs. But this essay lends credence to Gee’s (and many, many others) assertion that education and learning is identity work.

Brooke, Robert. “Underlife and Writing Instruction.” CCC 38.2 (May 1987): 141-53.

This entry was posted in Education, Identity and Identification, Teaching Composition. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Robert Brooke on ‘underlife’

  1. Sara Jameson says:

    The question when thinking of GTA’s is how their underlife is also course related. Which I think it often is. And how a writerly identity adds to a teacherly identity.

    Also copied this into our notes.


  2. Pingback: Teaching/Learning in Progress: Thinking about the “Backchannel” – Liz Ahl

  3. Joe Schicke says:

    What a coincidence! I was searching “Brooke underlife” and your blog was a top result.

    I always enjoy ideas that expose a truth about composition that can be used to argue for more student agency. In this case, the idea that we are asking students to take on the disruptive role of “writer” instead of “passive student” is one that students should be made aware of so they might see the possibilities for their own personal and/or professional development through the work we do in class.

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