Neoliberalizing markedness

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Bonnie Urciuoli. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.3.016


Neoliberalizing markedness

The interpellation of “diverse” college students

Bonnie URCIUOLI, Hamilton College

For students at elite US liberal arts colleges, symbolic capital accrues to their association with the institution itself, and for racially unmarked (white) students, symbolic capital can also accrue to other, informal associations with such institutions, such as friend and family ties or social fraternities. For racially marked students at elite schools, sources of symbolic capital are more limited to institutional venues such as the classroom and official school organizations. They are under pressure to act as good campus citizens, to “bring diversity” as “campus leaders,” enacting a combination of institutional pride and neoliberal values as key aspects of their “diversity.” This is particularly the case for students whose educations are provided through the Posse Foundation, which recruits and promotes “diverse” students explicitly as “leaders” and “change agents.” Such students are subject to neoliberal interpellation (hailed to enact a specific subjectivity) in ways that unmarked students are not because their options for an acceptable racial subjectivity is limited to a narrow range of social performance. In this way, neoliberal subjectivity can exacerbate racial markedness.

Keywords: Race, diversity, neoliberalism, US colleges, brand identity

Introduction: Neoliberalizing diversity

Since the mid-1990s, the use of the term diversity has become so routinized in US higher education and corporate life that it has become taken for granted as an obvious referring expression. But the emergence of the term in higher education tracks (more or less) a shift from race conceptualized as basically minority group in the 1960s to the 1990s corporate-preferred notion of value-added difference. While still a category of social identity marked1 relative to US notions [202]of whiteness,2 diversity is imagined in terms of its potential to make an organizational contribution, hence a “value-added” aspect of a student or worker. Viewed this way, diversity indexes the saturation of higher education with corporate and neoliberal values. Attention has been drawn to institutional and faculty aspects of corporatized and neoliberalized higher education (Tuchman 2009; Shumar and Canaan 2008). In this piece, I draw attention to the situation of undergraduates expected to perform corporate values as “leaders” and “changemakers,” reflexively managing themselves as a set of useful traits or skills in what Ilana Gershon (2011) terms neoliberal agency. While all college students have come to be expected to exemplify such virtues, being so imagined is especially consequential for students of color, since in the corporate and educational world, “diversity” has come to mean racial markedness enacted in terms of institutional values, and all too often as explicitly neoliberal values.

I take as my ethnographic study the situation of racially marked students at The College, a rural liberal arts school. The liberal arts college is a peculiarly American institution, a small stand-alone undergraduate institution offering a bachelor of arts or science degree (occasionally engineering but not professional, technical, or vocational). The College is financially well endowed, with just fewer than 2,000 students. As of this writing, its website reports its demographics as 29 percent US students of color or international citizens. This would suggest that the student body is 71 percent white, which is deceptive since most of its international students are white. (The current website no longer specifies the proportion of international students for the college as a whole but until last year it was about 5 percent.) US students of color3 are institutionally classified as Black, Latino, Asian, or “mixed.” The proportion has grown over the last quarter century but students’ day-to-day experience of racial markedness has changed less than one would hope, judging from office and classroom conversations, and recurring race/gender-inflected incidents.

Students of color have three paths into the College. One is the regular admissions process; many of these students are more likely to be of mixed-race or middle-class backgrounds, or both. One is the Opportunity Program (OP), a state-funded program that provides academic and financial support to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. One is the Posse Foundation, a private nonprofit organization that recruits and trains students for (as Posse terms it) leadership, and sends them in cohorts of ten to subscribing colleges and universities, which provide tuition. While OP and Posse recruitment does include white students, most are students of color. From the perspective of demographic accounts kept by the admissions office and posted by the office of institutional advancement, OP and Posse are useful ways to increase the College’s “diversity numbers.” From the perspective of the [203]student life administrators who oversee OP and Posse programs on campus, they are quite distinct structures with different effects on student life. From the perspective of most racially unmarked students, any differences among these paths tend to be unnoticed. From the perspective of students of color, these are quite distinctive paths into the school but once actually in the school, those distinctions become less important than their conflation into a general category of racially marked students. And once students do find themselves in that category, their viable options for self-presentation in ways that can generate symbolic capital are limited to an institutionally defined set of self-presentations. For those who come in through Posse, self-presentation options are particularly tailored to fit Posse’s promotion of its own brand. It is therefore useful to compare OP and Posse as organizations. My information about Posse comes mostly from its website, and from on-campus Posse administrators and mentors. My information about OP comes mostly from its on-campus administrators. I also compare the ways in which OP and Posse interpellate students, and the ways in which students respond to that interpellation.

The concept of interpellation was formulated by Louis Althusser (1971) to account for the ways in which social actors are hailed into certain forms of subjectivity shaped by and inextricable from ideologies embedded in social locations. It is useful to think of student undergraduate experience in terms of the interpellative acts through which they are hailed (and perhaps nudged) into seeing, feeling (in Williams’ 1977 sense of structures of feeling) and generally situating their institutional selves. White students who are institutionally secure, especially if that security arises from noninstitutional affiliations, have a good deal more latitude in terms of how they respond to that hailing than non-white students do. The more students are racially marked, the more subject they are to institutionally specific forms of interpellation because those are the forms of subjectivity that give their personas institutional value. This is true for both OP and Posse students, but especially for Posse students who are specifically recruited to exemplify neoliberal values and who are subject to continuing Posse socialization to make sure they do so. Where OP students all attend a pre–freshman-fall 5-week summer program followed by as-needed advising by their OP counselor, Posse students experience regular and frequent mentoring sessions and retreats that follow highly structured Posse protocols starting before and extending throughout college. These procedures effectively put Posse students in a situation where they are connected to both the College and to Posse offices outside the College whereas OP students are only connected to the College. Posse mentoring means enacting Posse’s brand within the College. OP does not have a brand.

Interpellative patterns are unevenly distributed across institutional fields and very much inflected by markedness, which at the same time affects the kinds of social and symbolic capital available to students. It is not news that US elite liberal arts colleges are bastions of unequally distributed social and symbolic capital (i.e., beneficial affiliations and their accruing status), and that, sociologically, they reproduce that distribution, along with provision of cultural capital in the form of class-advantageous social knowledge and behavior and not just job-specific skills (Bourdieu 1977; Bourdieu and Passeron 1977). That social capital has various loci: classroom academics, sports, college-recognized organizations, nonofficial social fraternities and sororities, or informal networks among fellow-student and alumni [204]friends and family. These loci are not equally accessible to all students, so symbolic capital is unevenly experienced. The eliteness of an elite college depends on who has what access. The less marked—the whiter and more middle or upper class— the student, the wider one’s range of access to various loci. The more marked the student, the more one is steered toward officially recognized loci, especially classrooms and organizations. They have some access to informal loci such as fraternities but they have much readier access to “multicultural” student clubs and to committee service or other administratively connected roles, which are generally eager for “diverse” student participation.

Much privileged access depends on family-based connections. The less marked people are, the more likely they are to come from “college families” and to interconnect in ways that do them good after college. They easily find social spaces in the “right” private societies and other informal connections that generate really fancy symbolic capital that may have little to do with any academic or administrative workings of the “official” institution. Such value is readily recognized among the unmarked. It is associated with but not generated by the institution. Networks among the well-off racially unmarked can generate their own symbolic value as alumni and family who all go to elite schools. The “right” fraternities can provide social capital found nowhere else in a college. Thus, the most potent forms of college-related symbolic capital do not derive simply from having gone to the school but from having specific affiliations within the school, some of which are not formally part of the school at all. Those affiliated networks may extend decades beyond college into worlds of work and marriage as can be seen in a quick flip through the “class notes” section of the alumni news, with descriptions of who shares an apartment with whom, who was at whose wedding, who met at what event. Such affiliations enhance the school’s symbolic capital, which in turn enhances that of these associations.

A consequence of this uneven distribution is the difference in how students are hailed or nudged or pressured to perceive and present themselves, and in who can afford to respond in what way. The more privileged one’s background, the wider one’s options for response. One not only attends college X, one is from family N, and an alum of fraternity ABΓ, all of which can bring that Goldman Sachs job a lot closer. For the less privileged and the more racially marked, who cannot claim such connections, institutionally connected self-presentation is that much more important: winning awards, taking leadership roles, or engaging in “community education” activities. Through these processes, racial markedness becomes institutional capital—diversity—recast as a quality or trait or even skill that one “brings to” one’s school (and later, company) as added value.

That uneven distribution of social and symbolic capital is obscured by the projection of the Good Student, a marketing construction embodying the qualities that make an elite liberal arts education (notoriously diffuse in content and indeterminate in outcome) worth the price tag (Urciuoli 2014). Constructed by offices of institutional advancement,4 Good Students appear in web sites and college literature, [205]abstracted from visual representations and descriptions of work and activities of actual students. Their primary social function is their appeal (“look what the College produces”) to prospective students, parents, and stakeholders. They are a projection of studenthood to those outside the college, and are central to fetishizing increasingly expensive higher education. Insofar as they are perceived as actual students, Good Student constructions hide the unequal distribution of social capital with which students come to the college. Many actual students whose images are so appropriated may have little to do with the use of their images: they don’t have to be “good” themselves. But many students do take it on themselves to inhabit such personae, to actually enact being Good Students, some white and some students of color. Students of color are particularly likely to do so, and to get interpellated to do so.

The nature of this interpellation can be seen by comparing Posse and OP. OP and Posse students are interpellated in ways that overlap—as “leaders”—and in ways that do not—Posse students are hailed as “change-makers.” More specifically, OP students are hailed by their OP counselor and each other as tough survivors (of their rigorous five-week college-preparatory summer program), as organization leaders, and educators of the community. Posse students are hailed by Posse and by College administrators as carefully selected leaders and change-makers (though not as tough survivors). Both forms of interpellation fit neoliberal subjectivities considered desirable in the corporate world, but Posse interpellation is explicitly neoliberal in its design as OP interpellation is not. In many ways these neoliberal interpellations reinforce rather than mitigate students’ markedness because they are the only ways in which students can acquire symbolic capital. But Posse’s interpellation of its students as leaders and change-makers, perpetuated through ongoing mentoring sessions and yearly retreats, is specifically designed to fit its brand: Posse sells itself through these processes. And yet, in the end, once OP and Posse students become part of the general student population, most unmarked students and for that matter, faculty, do not see any of this and instead see them all as one general pool of “diversity.”

To compare the institutional locations and dynamics of Posse and the OP, I examine their respective histories at the College, drawing on interviews with administrators who have overseen the OP and student multicultural affairs, and been tasked with implementing Posse mentoring once Posse was brought in by senior staff fiat. These interviews make clear the contradictions between the programs. I also draw on student interviews that show the tensions growing out of pressures to act as campus leaders, educate the community, create change, and otherwise enact roles defined in terms of corporate expectations, particularly as these narrow one’s options for enacting racial markedness as valued diversity. Above all, I try to show contradictions between what amounts to promotional language and the ways in which students describe and understand their enactments of institutional values. As Susan Gal (1989: 353) argues in “Language and political economy,” studies attuned to language show “how institutions constrain the options of speakers, and how speakers use the microstructures of interaction to reproduce, and on occasion transform, not only the bureaucratic institutions, but also their own often stigmatized social identities.”5[206]

OP and Posse

The Opportunity Programs (OPs) were established in 1968 and funded by the state to provide higher education assistance to academically and economically disadvantaged students who show academic promise. Structured slightly differently for in-state and out-of-state residents, OPs offer financial packages combining grants, loans, and work-study, some funded by the state, some by the college. The OP website (in contrast to Posse’s, as we will see) is brief, addressing program goals in mostly nonneoliberal terms, except perhaps for the words empower and choice:

The success of the . . . Program is not in the numbers but in the lives of the students who are now empowered to make choices about their lives that would have been impossible without this unique partnership between the State . . . and its independent colleges and universities.6

The decision to admit a student through the OP takes place in the admissions process, the discussion among admissions staff going something like this: “This student may not have the strongest grades (or perhaps test scores) but s/he looks like a great potential leader”; “s/he would make a great contribution to the community” or “s/he would bring diversity to the school.” Incoming OP cohorts at the College presently number around 40, with about 160 OP supported students on campus at a given time. Most students coming in through the OP self-identify as Black, Latino, Asian, or some combination thereof. Some self-identify as white, mostly children of college staff, or sports recruits, usually football or basketball.

All participants attend a five-week summer program (often called “boot camp”) before fall of their first year. Known for its tough academics, this preparatory program is customarily run with limited access to outside contact and strict rules about what students can bring with them (no personal computers or cell phones). Students earn four credits toward graduation through coursework in math, science, philosophy, government, and psychology, all stressing writing and oral presentation. The students of color come out of it with very strong networks, often forming the core group of active participants and officers in the multicultural clubs. The white students in the program generally disappear into the autumn crowd of entering students.

When the College hired the first OP director in 1972, the work of structuring the program and locating recruits was left to her. Her job (which she held for almost thirty years) was not always easy. She often found herself at cross purposes with the president, the admissions director, and the business office director, all of whom made some decisions affecting OP resources without consulting her as director. But the program remained under her purview. It has had two directors in its forty-plus year history, and as long as it remains in compliance with the state’s guidelines, it is a college-internal program. With its 160 or so on-campus students, it has a director and a support staff of three.

Posse was founded in 1989 on the idea of providing public high school students who, as Posse puts it, have academic and leadership potential overlooked by traditional admissions processes, with a cohort or “posse” with whom to move through [207]college. Posse promotes its recruits as agents of change, a “new kind of network of leaders” reflecting “the country’s rich demographic mix”: “The key to a promising future for our nation rests on the ability of strong leaders from diverse backgrounds to develop consensus solutions to complex social problems.”7 Posse applicants are nominated early in their last year of high school for their “leadership potential” and selected through what Posse describes as its “Dynamic Assessment Process (DAP), a unique evaluation method designed to identify young leaders who might be missed by traditional admissions criteria, but who can excel at selective colleges and universities.”8 Once selected as Posse-eligible, students’ applications go to the schools partnered with the city from which they apply. Once students have been accepted, each cohort of ten spends thirty-four weeks, two hours a week, attending weekly workshops meant to develop mutually supportive ties and ease the transition to college. These address “team building and group support; cross-cultural communication; leadership and becoming an active agent of change on campus; and academic excellence.”9 Once on campus as a cohort, students spend two weeks before classes start with their assigned mentor working on academic preparedness. The subscribing institution pays the tuition.10 For their first two years in college, each cohort meets weekly for two hours with its mentor, and each student meets for an hour once every two weeks with his or her mentor. Posse program personnel visit campus four times a year to meet with student cohorts, mentors, and on-campus Posse administrators, and they also “facilitate an annual weekend-long PossePlus Retreat attended by members of the larger student body, faculty, and administration with the goal of discussing an important campus issue identified by Posse Scholars.”11 Attendance at the retreat is required for all Posse members and mentors; “Plus” means that non-Posse students and faculty are invited. Posse provides a Mentor Manual with protocols for training, mentoring, and retreats.

The decision to “partner” with Posse was made in the late 1990s by the College’s president and admissions director, with the first cohort entering in 2001. According to the first OP director and the then-associate dean of multicultural affairs, the decision was probably made to augment the (then considerably lower) number of students of color. It may also have been made with an eye to the College’s brand (perhaps in consultation with the directors of the office of institutional advancement and the business office). The decision also meant a sizeable investment in resources. The school currently takes in two Posse cohorts a year, which means 80 Posse students (with tuitions paid by the College) on campus in a given year. Each cohort has a faculty mentor, and each mentor gets a course reduction or stipend. In [208]addition to eight mentors, there is also an on-campus Posse liaison, a job currently assigned to the OP director.

There are differences in how Posse and OP students are situated to present themselves. Posse students are positioned by the very terms of their recruitment and their continuing involvement in retreats and leadership mentoring to present themselves in a corporate frame of reference, befitting a foundation with a Wall Street address and major corporate donors. OP students tend to present themselves as mutually supportive veterans of something like an endurance test (that “boot camp” again) with a firm focus on academics as their central reason to be here, a legacy of the first director and maintained by the second. Not surprisingly, there can be tensions between the groups, especially over the fact that Posse Scholars receive full tuition scholarships while OP students come in with aid packages, including loans. Yet many Posse and OP students do form ties across program boundaries. Posse students routinely invite OP friends to the annual PossePlus retreats and both Posse and OP take part in the college’s multicultural organizations. Most Posse and OP students are students of color, and their situation, whether or not they participate in Posse or OP, is subject to markedness dynamics that blur distinctions as to how they came into the institution.

Addressing (or not) students’ experience of racial markedness

According to four administrators whom I interviewed—both OP directors (the second of whom is the current Posse liaison), the associate dean of multicultural affairs, and the chief diversity officer (who also served as Posse liaison and cohort mentor)—there has never been any substantial top-down initiative to address the situation of racially marked students on the campus, even after the College partnered with Posse. In my experience of the College, most of that work was done by the four administrators I just mentioned, all of whom are African American. Nor have these positions ever been treated as important or authoritative or even integral to the school’s structure. The OP director and associate dean positions are heavily overtasked. The position of chief diversity officer only existed for a few years and never had a clear charge.

Despite efforts by the division of student life, headed by the dean of students and assisted by a senior associate dean overseeing several associate and assistant deans including an associate dean for multicultural affairs and accessibility services, all overseeing the day-to-day aspects of student life, the needs and experiences of students of color have never really been addressed in terms of what racial markedness actually is. The work of student life is based on a model of what a student ideally should be. For the general student population, it begins (at least on campus) with first year orientation; for students recruited through OP and Posse, as we have seen, it begins earlier. As the school year progresses, it continues in the form of academic requirements, housing situations, social regulations, the student disciplinary system, and all the other institutional elements that steer and restrict students’ four-year paths through college.

A former student activities director explained to me what she saw as the importance of careful first year planning based on appropriate programming [209]and socialization practices to have incoming students learn to interact as community members. The officially scripted orientation program, which lasts over a week, with “adventures” and “explorations” and community-oriented presentations and “fun” exercises led by orientation leaders, is designed to connect students collectively to a model of community built on morally and socially responsible personhood, and to channel relations with each other along lines compatible with that model. It is a nice idea, students enjoy it, and the effects do not seem to last. As Daniel Chambliss and Christopher Takacs (2014) show, how students make decisions affecting much of their ensuing social and academic careers is generally grounded in the patterns of acquaintance and friendship formed as soon as classes and dorm life begins, as students experience the counterinfluence of “grass-roots” socialization that comes with their introduction to other new students and upperclassmen and the multiplex networks organized by societies, clubs, athletics, and concentrations. Such sociality of the everyday soon outweighs the effects of planned “community” messages from student life.

Students of color, especially those who come in through OP or Posse, tend to socialize primarily with each other once the school year starts, and even though many do end up with more demographically varied friendship networks, their initial socialization tends to divide along racial lines. Pretty much all students get involved in some student organization, but the organizations most specific to racially marked students are those whose mission is to provide safe space and “educate the community” about one’s “culture.” All students are subject to the regimes of the office of residential life but the students of color routinely report feeling uncertain, annoyed, threatened, or simply precarious in ways that most unmarked students do not experience to any comparable extent.

For unmarked students, many elements of college sociality are much more likely to be continuous with the worlds they come from. Many find the school through networks of family and family friends, and may very well know an alum. They are much less likely to be the first generation attending college. They are more likely to have access to college-related information, some of it decidedly unacademic, shared among networks of family, friend, and school contacts. Such information is part of a more general store of social capital that also provides access to unmarked ways of interacting (which works as cultural capital). The College is less well known to students from backgrounds of race/class disadvantage. Most do not have family or friends who went to the school, and are much more likely to have heard about the school through recruiters or guidance counselors who keep an eye out for such opportunities, which is how Posse and OP students find the college, as well as many students of color who come in through neither channel. Consequently, they find themselves navigating (and helping each other navigate) situations that come much more easily to racially unmarked students.

The first OP director, who set up the five-week summer program to help students with general study and writing skills, describes how she set it up specifically to address the kinds of problems faced by students from disadvantaged backgrounds. She described her frustration at both faculty and administrators who, on the one hand, saw the OP as “a black student program” yet could not grasp what disadvantaged students might need from the college. She worked hands-on with nearly thirty entering classes, contacting high schools for OP recruits and coordinating [210]services to provide for their needs once enrolled, services that the College seemed not to grasp, let alone provide for. (The appeal of Posse doing all that spadework themselves and saving the administration the trouble—except for the work of Posse mentors that is done by faculty—thus becomes obvious.) She described confidentiality issues with the college’s writing and quantitative literacy centers that led her to seek outside tutors. She described students’ particular need for basic reading, writing, and oral presentation skills to, as she put it, build their self-esteem. Most of all, she described her frustration with decisions made by admissions, the business office, and the president without regard for the effect of those decisions on those left out of the process:

When decisions are made, you’re not brought in on the decision making or the planning. I don’t know what the function of the planning committee is because they will sit down and they will plan and make decisions, and twenty minutes later it’s all thrown out and changed and we’re going to do something totally different.

Especially consequential was the decision made by the then-president and admissions director to initiate the college’s involvement with Posse. The OP director was highly critical of the fact that they were making this decision to boost the college’s “diversity numbers” without taking into account the internal support structures that those recruits would need. The OP director’s colleague, the associate dean of multicultural affairs, made the same criticism:

But the question I asked from the very beginning . . . and I have yet to get the answer, is that as wonderful as it sounds, what are we doing to prepare our community to accept [Posse], when we already have a program—the OP program—that has got a wonderful run here and it’s still seen as a Black program.

Having expressed this concern to the president and admissions dean, she said she was told that

It was too early to answer that question because “we” were just doing fact-finding. Next thing I know, we’re getting it [Posse]. Next thing I know, it’s now spring or early summer almost, the president has a meeting and invites [the OP director] and me to it and all the legwork has been done, I mean it’s almost a done deal.

What the president and the admissions director wanted was for the OP director and the associate dean to sign on enthusiastically, not to take part in the decision. It is difficult not to conclude that Posse was indeed seen from the outset as a diversity delivery vehicle.

Interpellation: OP and Posse (and the Posse brand)

After the first OP director retired, her successor continued the same hands-on approach. She explained to me that because OP students would not normally have a chance to attend a school like the College, her job as OP director was to help them navigate the institution, taking into account every component of their lives [211]on campus, including oversight of support services, academics, financial aid, career and personal goal setting, living situations, and accountability to the state. She also served as mentor to a Posse cohort and then became the College’s Posse liaison, a position she still holds. In comparing OP and Posse, she noted Posse’s concern with its brand, particularly manifested in its PossePlus retreat:

The Posse retreat is part of their protocol and brand so that it appears that the relationship [between the Posse organization and the students on campus] is very tight when it really is a protocol. But the most consistent and regular contact is with the mentor here on campus. So the primary affiliation shifts to the campus.

She described her role as Posse mentor as having “twice the intensity” of her OP role, due to Posse’s elaborate protocol. By contrast, OP counseling is done four times a year when a first-year OP student does something that warrants counseling:

But the Posse student is different in that everything in addition to the coordination of all their supportive services, you’re also obligated to insure their physical and mental well-being. So when you’re meeting with these students, you want to understand what their issues are, personal, academic, social, and you’re looked to to help them coordinate and get to the root of those issues as opposed to what I would do with a OP person. I may say [to an OP student], “well, you need to seek some counseling, go see our academic counselor.” With these [Posse] students they come to the mentor for everything. . . . So the student who may have trouble gets a great deal of my time. And with the regular protocol they have regular meetings that they have to follow. In addition to that, I have weekly scheduled conversations with the Posse Foundation, so you have to keep them apprised within reason of what’s going on with their students as well. So while I may be dealing with the same types of issues for both the OP and the Posse, the intensity can be very, very deep with a Posse student.

Where OP students are asked to address specific problems with specific personnel, Posse students are expected to spend hours and hours talking generalities. The Mentor Manual (Posse Foundation 2014) describes the weekly two-hour long mentoring sessions as designed to help students share experiences and support, stay current on campus resources, opportunities, and events, and “continue to develop their skills as leaders” (p.35). Students are also urged to discuss successes and challenges. Mentors are urged to take notes on attendance and lateness, group progress, and individual highlights. The manual urges mentors to facilitate in a neutral way discussion of specifics that students encounter, especially their first year. Questions focus on individual perceptions and feelings, for example, “what was X like,” “how do you feel about X,” “what was hard (or easy),” “what surprised you?” A current Posse mentor told me that some students respond to this format, some go off on tangents, and most tend to start talking among themselves, especially about feelings, and leave the format behind.

This contrast parallels the ways in which Posse and OP emphasize academics. Posse places equal weight on academic activities and the performance of leadership and change-making roles, which, as the second OP director suggested, becomes a [212]difficult balancing act for students. The college’s former chief diversity officer, who also served as Posse liaison and cohort mentor, was much crisper about what looked to him like Posse’s unwillingness to deal realistically with students’ academic needs:

But that’s the kind of pressure they [the Posse foundation] build up for these students. One of the kinds of things I tried to do during the three years I was there with people doing the Posse program is to focus on academics, the reading and writing and marshaling of these skills, to be able to move them along. And those people didn’t want to do it.

However much OP students may have resented the “boot camp” nature of the summer program, there could be no doubt about academics being central to the program. The subjectivity into which OP students are interpellated, or are meant to be interpellated, is that of the tough-minded, independent, academic survivor. They are told to find resources, follow up, and deal with problems. OP students whom I interviewed over the years thought that the “boot camp” element might have been toned down a bit but they really did have a clear sense of themselves as survivors and they were proud of it.

Posse training protocols reflect corporate assumptions that attitudes can be inculcated by a carefully crafted combination of educational programming and bonding exercises, the same logic that informs worker-discipline training programs (Urciuoli 2008). Hence the assertion that training in the form of mentoring sessions, workshops, and retreats will cause a “carefully selected” cohort to “develop consensus solutions to complex social problems” as “leaders of tomorrow.”12 Yet as we saw, the actual mentoring sessions in which such careful training supposedly takes place are oriented toward participants’ feelings and reactions. As my most recent mentor-informant put it, his job seemed to be managing students’ performance of the mentoring process so that Posse could say it had been done. Since this performance is relatively private, all that seems to matter is the mentor’s certification that the process happened. By contrast, OP advising focuses not on group discussions of perceptions and reactions but on individual students figuring out when they need what kind of help and seeking it out.

The more public and more carefully monitored PossePlus retreat is a different story. I (partially) attended two of these, both organized around workshop activities featuring such accouterments as balloons, koosh balls, paper tags, and hats. During opening discussion and activities on Friday evening and during Saturday sessions, trainers would continually direct participants’ attention away from talking about institutional structures (such as the dynamics underlying student club and society formation) and toward talking in terms of types of person. On Friday evening, students largely seemed to accept the trainers’ setting of these terms, as if trusting the trainers’ credentials over their own capacities to classify and explain. During the Saturday activities, students seemed more inclined to find their own discursive direction.

The first retreat I attended (with a department colleague at the invitation of one of our students) focused on the role of students in forming a college identity, a theme [213]developed through various activities. In one exercise, strongly reminiscent of corporate identity-building exercises, students were asked to address a series of questions about what helps or hinders formation of the College identity: what is the College identity; what have students gotten from the College; how have they been affected by the social scene; how has the College experience changed them; how has its environment encouraged personal growth and change; what pressures push students toward membership in particular social groups; and finally, “What is something you’re passionate about that people don’t know about you?” Students were urged to respond in ways that focused on their experience as individuals, without raising questions about the procedures themselves. Several students in my group noted that the same questions were asked repeatedly, and in their discussion began to ignore the trainers’ “prompts” in favor of their own conclusions. (My favorite example was that the College identity seemed to be something brought out for parents’ weekend.) A couple of trainers came by intermittently to reprimand us gently for not filling the time allotted for each part of the activity, or for going over that time, or for asking each other unscripted questions. We wondered, but never got to ask the trainers, what those rules meant and why they had to be observed. A colleague in another group reported the same dynamic: students quickly became more interested in talking and listening to each other than in following the prescribed pattern.

The small group discussion was followed by general discussion in which the facilitators, after again reminding us of the importance of sticking to the rules, asked questions focused on individuals’ direct effect on other individuals and on the “community” as an aggregate of individuals: what did students learn from the discussion; what effect did they have on each others’ experience; and so on. At moments, students started to deconstruct the premises of these questions but there was little discursive opportunity for them to follow that up. My department colleague and I wondered why students were discouraged from engaging in the kind of critical thinking that is presumably the point of a liberal arts education. The College’s faculty and administrative liaisons with Posse were not happy with the trainers’ insistence on the controlled scripts, nor could we figure out if the trainers envisioned specific outcomes to these activities. The one trainer I did ask said only that the point of the exercise was “team-building.”

At first glance, the interpellation of Posse students at the PossePlus retreat seems to exemplify Summerson Carr’s notion of anticipatory interpellation (2009: 319) in that subjects are not only constituted as addressed but they are also socialized to expect how “powerful others” will address them in ways that make clear what institutional roles they occupy. It is the case that in this partly public arena, the visiting Posse trainers monitor students’ adherence to what trainers consider an appropriate performance of institutionally defined roles. Yet I had the impression that while students generally enjoyed performing such roles, they did not see any particular consequences to themselves in not adhering to trainers’ expectations, nor did they seem to take the trainers’ institutional authority terribly seriously. One could interpret the trainers’ monitoring as brand management. The students’ role is to enact bits of brand material and the trainers’ role is to keep the routines performed in ways that maintain brand identity, thus keeping the connection to the brand’s source clear and the brand’s formal qualities consistent in relation to those connections (Moore 2003).[214]

The neoliberal roles in which students are cast reinforce the likelihood that they are interpellated as manifestations of Posse’s brand. They are routinely addressed as if they are future leaders and change-makers and yet the micromanagerial protocols that characterize their training hardly seem suited to get them into those roles. But the point may be not to create actual leaders but to create enactments that enhance the Posse brand, enactments that approximate models of good corporate workers. And maybe the point is less to convince the students themselves of this than to convince Posse’s corporate donors and investors that that is what Posse is creating. To the same end, Posse presents its outcomes as countable units of measurement: who goes on to graduate or professional school; who gets what scholarships. The notion of students acting as change agents is manifested as measurable accomplishments, with higher numbers suggesting more change, in the manner of corporate outcomes reports. Projecting success onto countable outcomes may not be actual change, but that matters less than the rhetorical impact of such “outcomes” as signs of alignment with corporate value. This may seem like audit culture (Shore and Wright 2000), with its highly structured categories and measurable outcomes. But there are no consequences for students who do not “measure up.” Nothing is really being measured in a cause-and-effect linear fashion. Rather, an image of audit is fragmented into design elements that style the brand, rather as music is sampled. Once Posse students graduate from college, they are its product, as Good Students are more generally a college’s product (Urciuoli 2014). Posse’s various protocols interpellate their recruits, in ways similarly strikingly devoid of content, to perform bits of that ideal as a sort of neoliberal poetics, including repeated design elements, the strictness of interpellation varying with how public the discursive context is but with little if any consequence to students for not fully complying.

OP interpellation, by contrast, is more private and targets specific areas of information. Students are specifically told what they need to know socially, institutionally, and especially academically. The OP’s intensive precollege summer program takes place in isolation and it is quite serious as a sorting mechanism. Though it has not happened often, students who do not perform as what the OP director considers to be college material have been asked to leave. This has not happened in the Posse program.

I close this section by summarizing my observations (above) on some key differences between OP and Posse interpellation. The language with which Posse “hails” its recruits in its mentoring sessions and retreats is characterized by repetition and “sampling” of themes and formula, by exhortations to describe feelings and reactions in private mentoring and exhortations to stick to scripted exercises in public retreats. OP discourse orients students to meet challenges, find information, and solve problems. Students are urged to push themselves and to target specific issues and problems. These differences point to contrasting metapragmatics, that is, interpretive frames governing the interpretation of discursive acts in ways compatible with each other (Silverstein 1976). Posse discourse is largely about encouraging self-presentations that illuminate its neoliberal branding principles; students are urged to see themselves in roles as leaders and change-makers that could be either campus or corporate. OP discourse is largely about proving one’s capacity to strive and succeed, and are urged to see themselves in terms of their roles on campus.[215]

How racial markedness swamps these differential interpellations

So come fall, incoming OP and Posse students find themselves separately interpellated while conflated with each other as the racially marked minority. In this section, several OP and Posse students reflect on their respective interpellations, and on learning to be allies. Bianca, who came in through the OP, contrasts her Posse friends’ interpellation with her own as an OP student. She first addresses how her Posse friends get the “leadership” message:

I found that from talking to my Posse friends, that they always say, “we were found as leaders of our schools, and we’re here just because we were leaders of our schools, and then we found out that we get full financial assistance, and so that’s why we’re here.”

She then outlines the message sent to her and her OP friends about the importance of academic success:

Nowhere did I hear that it was that they [Posse] were of lower income, or it was because they kind of have borderline grades, or anything of that sort. Whereas in OP, I was told . . . it was just basically that you’re a borderline student, not that you’re failing and that we want to help you out . . . and that we think you can have complete success here if you just took the right supportive systems. That’s what I think OP is for. Nowhere did they say you’re a leader, even though I was . . .

Bianca regarded herself, her OP friends, and her Posse friends as equally leaders though “they just phrased it very different . . . they just sugar coated it for the Posse program.” David, another OP student, also noted the difference in the regimes to which OP and Posse relations were subject, with Posse seeming “to have more organization in a way, when they get on campus, because they have to have weekly meetings, they have to go to all these programs and events.” By contrast, OP students “take a remedial course in the summer for five weeks and then we come into the College and that’s it, that’s our OP duty. We meet with the OP director once a semester or whenever we have trouble [or] get book money.”

Jared, who came in through Posse, sees his experience of interpellation in terms of performance, particularly in leading workshops to “get people back on track, and keep the momentum of the conversation flowing” so that “it makes us stand out when the workshops come into play.” The major outcome is, as noted earlier, the effect on feeling: “So we feel important too, we’re making the impact on these students.”

At the same time, Jared notes the problem of too many leaders: “it’s a good thing and a bad thing, when you put ten leaders [in a Posse cohort] together.” It can be useful, he adds, if “we can learn to follow as well as lead” but it also means acknowledging that Posse isn’t the only source of leadership: there are OP leaders too, serving in positions in the multicultural organizations. Even Posse students find that they may have to “start at the bottom and work your way up.” People who were “presidents of their class” may find “they have to be like secretary.” Jared adds:

It’s hard for them because it’s like, “well, when I’m at home, I was this,” which also makes it equally hard to be here because then you’re like, “well I’m not shining as much as I was someplace else.”[216]

Both Posse and OP students saw rivalry imposed on them. Isabel, who entered with the first Posse cohort, was surprised to hear that the OP students were told, “they’re bringing these top kids from Boston and they’re competing against you, and you’ll show them up.” This ran counter to what Isabel had seen as the warm welcome extended to the first Posse cohort by the College’s president, admissions director, associate dean of multicultural affairs, and dean of faculty: “But one by one all these people who were so key in bringing us here started leaving, and we started to see the qualms about our program on this campus.”

Bianca comments on the rivalry from her OP perspective:

When I got here and met the Posse Program, there’s always this rivalry. We didn’t even know what we were rivaling about . . . and it wasn’t even some barbaric rivalry, it was just for the first week and then you got over it because you knew these people were actually the only people of color so you had to be their friends.

Jared, from the Posse perspective, commented on the difference between the initial message they were given about their place in the school and learning to adjust to the situation they found:

it was kind of that everything was presented to us with a silver ribbon on it, they made it seem like the school was just the perfect place . . . but when we got here we just had each other so we weren’t really concerned with the campus as a whole, we were more concerned with getting to know each other and being able to function once we got on campus.

In the end, the neoliberal messaging that accumulated in Posse training retained little traction in the face of racial reality. Jared continues,

and then when we get here it’s like, what are you OP or Posse? So then it’s hard for you to even want to contribute to the campus when you don’t even feel worthy . . .

Because these are the only two programs, it seems like you’re in one category or the other. I find that kind of difficult . . . it devalues your worth here . . . because then it feels like you’re just helping the College fulfill what they need to do for a quota, or to make their campus more diverse. And at the same time it doesn’t feel like you’re appreciated as a student.

He also commented on the underlying fungibility of his position: as a Posse student and perhaps as a student of color, he is there to make the school look good, and in that capacity, any student in his category would do:

That is the impression you get once you get here, that you’re just a tool, kind of, a device where you’re helping the College but the College is not really helping you.

In the end it may not be possible for either program to overcome the accumulated effect of markedness dynamics. Right after school starts, the unmarked OP and Posse students fade away into a separate social world, to the point that most people on campus never think of OP or Posse as including white students. As David explains,[217]

But the interesting thing . . . is that always, the white students seem to just break from that clump, break away from identifying as OP or Posse and they just blend into the rest of the community.

David and other OP alumni described many instances of this over the years and David further notes how readily white racial positioning overshadows any possibility of nonracial forms of alliance with one’s OP or Posse cohort:

These students kind of felt that to identify as OP or Posse was not to identify economically with it but to identify racially with it, to say oh, you’re part of this Black, Latino, and Asian rubric. That’s kind of the alienation I think they felt, though they were not alienated during OP [the summer program]. I see videos and stuff of OPs that came after me and they were all very united, all these students, very integrated, very united as a group of OP students. And as soon as they stepped into the school the students of color from OP and Posse would stick together, that’s a similarity between the two groups whereas the white students in these respective groups would disappear.

Posse and OP students of color do find shared leadership roles, rival or allied, in the multicultural organizations and concomitantly as community educators, making diversity safely available to the College. OP students have occupied this role for decades, particularly with the ties they (especially women) establish among each other in the OP summer program. These ties form the core of the “multicultural” Black, Latino, and Asian organizations that once provided much of the College’s diversity programming in the form of invited lectures and performances, though the College’s diversity center has been doing most of that programming for the last several years. Running these organizations can be grueling (as Nguyen’s narrative in Childs, Nguyen, and Handler 2008 shows) and disheartening (as Jared testifies above). Nevertheless, educating the community, as students who do it often call multicultural programming, is a major source of symbolic capital for racially marked students. Multicultural organizations are based on a correlation of racial identity with cultural identity. Organization members, especially leaders, talk about “having a culture” and many speak of “bringing their culture” to the unmarked as their campus contribution, by formal programming and by sharing personal experience.

Culture as a positive quality possessed by students of color can be used as a form of symbolic capital, putting its possessors in the position of culture providers, indeed the preferred providers, authenticated by their markedness (Urciuoli 2009: 27–28). The idea of culture as that which can be institutionally contained rests on a notion of culture produced in specific social conditions, a point made by Richard Handler (1988) in his study of reified, naturalized, possessable, and authentic “culture” that serves institutional functions in a modern nation state. As Ilana Gershon and Janelle Taylor (2008) argue, culture takes on value to outsiders insofar as it fits the structurally available slots in modern institutions that are themselves assumed to be acultural. The institutional function of marked culture depends on how its providers are classified and organized relative to the larger institution. Higher education is a site for the production of the rational, so the legitimacy of culture provision depends on its support role in the production of the rational. To [218]the extent that culture providers fulfill this function, they perform markedness in an unmarked frame. Hence the role of the multicultural organization in a modern college, providing safe bits of difference framed by its proper place in the aculturally modern institution.13 When culture is objectified and packaged (music, dance, food), the markedness is contained. But it does retain a sense of markedness, and both unmarked and marked students see it that way. This was made clear to me in several interview comments about the unlikeliness of “white culture” or as one black student put it: “They particularly use white culture? The two words together? I’ve never heard of that!”

In conclusion

While it is relatively easy for white students to find symbolic capital in both institutional (e.g., classroom, student organizations) and informal (e.g., social fraternities, family connections) college loci, students of color are much more limited to finding symbolic capital in institutional loci, particularly student organizations that involve enacting a racially marked identity in valued ways. Enacting identities in ways compatible with or exemplifying institutional values converts racial markedness into valued and nondisruptive diversity, and it is that conversion that makes it symbolic capital. Performing campus leadership, culture provision, and community education are thus important means for developing diversity as symbolic capital. But Posse goes into far more neoliberal detail when its recruits must enact diversity by representing Posse’s interests in the College. By setting itself up as trainer of leaders and change-makers, Posse can take credit for students’ work as “campus leaders.” But it is the students doing the work, and they are doing it by not only institutional enactments but by themselves becoming symbolic capital for an agency outside the school using them to boost its brand.

The considerable difference between how OP and Posse students are hailed as valued students does not seem to change substantially their situation as students of color, nor change the benefit they find in allying with each other. Not all but many, perhaps most, of them end up as mutually supportive coleaders of the one nonclassroom institutional area where they can best accumulate symbolic capital: leadership in campus activities that cast racial markedness in terms that add value to the institution. All this is a lot of work, and their markedness is certainly providing a service to the institution. But at least they are more or less setting their own schedule and writing their own script. When students must also put time and energy into activities according to Posse’s script, as brand enactors for Posse’s notion of diversity, they are basically content providers for Posse and for the institutions subscribing to Posse, which makes their markedness that much more exploited by both.[219]


This essay was originally presented at “Neoliberal Frontiers: Language and Political Economy Revisited” at The University of Chicago on March 6, 2015. Many thanks for their help, insights, and comments to Chaise LaDousa, to special issue editor Andrew Graan, to HAU acting editor Michael Lambek, and to the HAU reviewers.


Althusser, Louis. 1971. “Ideology and ideological state apparatuses.” In Lenin and philosophy and other essays, edited by Louis Althusser, 127–86. London: Monthly Review.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a theory of practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University.

Bourdieu, Pierre, and Jean-Claude Passeron. 1977. Reproduction in education, society, and culture. London: Sage.

Carr, Summerson. 2009. “Anticipating and inhabiting institutional identities.” American Ethnologist 36 (2): 317–36.

Chambliss, Daniel, and Christopher Takacs. 2014. How college works. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Childs, Courtney, Huong Nguyen, and Richard Handler. 2008. “The temporal and spatial politics of student ‘diversity’ at an American university.” In Timely assets: The politics of resources and their temporalities, edited by Elizabeth Emma Ferry and Mandana E. Limbert, 169–90. Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research.

Gal, Susan. 1989. “Language and political economy.” Annual Review of Anthropology 18:345–67.

Gershon, Ilana. 2011. “Neoliberal agency.” Current Anthropology 52 (4): 537–55.

Gershon, Ilana, and Janelle Taylor. 2008. “Culture in the spaces of no-culture.” American Anthropologist 110 (4): 417–21.

Handler, Richard. 1988. Nationalism and the politics of culture in Quebec. Madison: University of Wisconsin.

Hill, Jane. 2008. The everyday language of white racism. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Lyons, John. 1977. Semantics, vol. I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Moore, Robert. 2003. “From genericide to viral marketing: On ‘brand.’” Language & Communication 23 (3–4): 331–57.

Posse Foundation. 2014. The Mentor Manual. New York: The Posse Foundation Inc.

Shore, Cris, and Susan Wright. 2000. “Coercive accountability: The rise of audit culture in higher education.” In Audit cultures: Anthropological studies in accountability, ethics and the academy, edited by Marilyn Strathern, 57–89. London: Routledge.

Shumar, Wesley, and Joyce Canaan, eds. 2008. Structure and agency in the neoliberal university. New York: Routledge.[220]

Silverstein, Michael. 1976. “Shifters, linguistic categories and cultural description.” In Meaning in anthropology, edited by Keith Basso and Henry Selby, 11–55. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Tuchman, Gaye. 2009. Wannabe U: Inside the corporate university. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Urciuoli, Bonnie. 2008. “Skills and selves in the new workplace.” American Ethnologist 35 (2): 211–28.

———. 2009. “Talking/not talking about race: The enregisterment of culture and diversity in higher education discourses.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 19 (1): 21–39.

———. 2014. “The semiotic production of the good student: A Peircian look at the commodification of liberal arts education.” Signs and Society 2 (1): 56–83.

Williams, Raymond. 1977. Marxism and literature. Oxford: Oxford University.[221]

Néolibéraliser le marquage: l’interpellation des étudiants « issus de la diversité » dans les Colleges américains

Résumé : Dans les écoles de « Liberal Arts » d’élite aux États-Unis, les étudiants accumulent du capital symbolique par leur association avec l’institution elle-même, et pour ceux qui sont racialement non marqués (les blancs), ce capital social se constitue aussi au fil d’autres associations informelles avec de telles institutions, par les liens d’amitié ou familiaux, par les confréries (« fraternities »). Pour les étudiants racialement marqués de ces écoles d’élite, les sources du capital symbolique se limitent souvent aux sites mêmes de l’institution, tels que la salle de classe et les organisations officielles de l’école. Ils sont tenus d’agir comme les bons samaritains du campus, d’y faire venir la « diversité » en tant que « leaders du campus », en somme de promouvoir une association de fierté institutionnelle et de valeurs néolibérales comme étant un aspect essentiel de leur « diversité ». Ceci est particulièrement le cas pour les étudiants bénéficiaires des bourses d’étude de la Fondation Posse, qui recrute et promeut les étudiants « issus de la diversité » spécifiquement en tant que « leaders » et d’« agents du changement ». Ces étudiants sont sujets à l’interpellation néolibérale (tenus d’incarner une subjectivité spécifique) d’une manière qui ne concerne pas les étudiants non marqués ; leurs options en matière de subjectivité raciale sont limitées à un ensemble restreint de présentations de soi socialement acceptées. De cette façon, la subjectivité néolibérale peut exacerber le marquage racial.

Bonnie URCIUOLI teaches linguistic anthropology at Hamilton College, specializing in race, class, and language. In addition to Exposing prejudice: Puerto Rican experiences of language, race, and class (a study of linguistic practices and ideologies), Urciuoli has published in American Ethnologist, Language and Communication, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, and elsewhere. Her current research is on the institutional production of diversity in higher education, the neoliberalizing of undergraduate experience, and the marketing of liberal arts education.

Bonnie Urciuoli
Hamilton College
Anthropology Department
198 College Hill Road
Clinton NY 13323


1. An unmarked member of a set represents the defining characteristics of the set while a marked member stands out in some key way. This use of markedness is adapted from formal linguistic usage (see, e.g., Lyons 1977: 305) in which a marked member of a set relates to an unmarked member as specialized to basic or atypical to typical. Thus, the marked element is not simply different but contrastive.

2. See, for example, Jane Hill (2008) for extended discussion of US whiteness.

3. While I prefer racially marked students as the more semiotically informed term, students of color is routine usage among students and faculty when talking about their status in the institution. Multicultural is the routine institutional term for US citizens or permanent residents that self-identify as Black, Latino, or Asian.

4. Offices of institutional advancement are those divisions of colleges and university responsible for fundraising and donations (development), alumni and trustee relations, marketing, branding, publicity, and other “communication.”

5. Thanks to Andy Graan for finding this perfect quote.

6. http://heop.org/about-us/, accessed December 9, 2016.

7. http://www.possefoundation.org/about-posse/why-posse-is-needed, accessed December 3, 2016.

8. http://www.possefoundation.org/about-posse/program-components/recruitment, accessed December 3, 2016.

9. http://www.possefoundation.org/about-posse/program-components/precollegiate-training accessed December 3, 2016.

10. See https://www.possefoundation.org/, accessed December 2, 2016, for details.

11. http://www.possefoundation.org/about-posse/program-components/campus-program, accessed December 3, 2016.

12. https://www.possefoundation.org/about-posse/our-history-mission, accessed December 5, 2016.

13. It is this aspect of racially marked “culture” that the corporate world finds a value-added quality of its workers. And while I do not know if or how much Posse hires its recruits as employees, I am told by one mentor-informant that they can be placed in available slots in banks of jobs maintained by some of Posse’s donor organizations.