Learning and Earning in the Neoliberal University

Identity, Agency, and Mobility: Student-Workers’ Networked Experiences

My research foregrounds the lived experiences of working students in a learn-and-earn partnership between UPS and the University of Louisville. In this program, student-workers receive free tuition in exchange for their third-shift labor at UPS. My dissertation illustrates and argues for a more concrete understanding of the networked nature of student-workers’ experiences of postsecondary education and suggests ways that we might make these experiences intelligible in the composition classroom.


Bronwyn Williams (director) 

Mary P. Sheridan

Beth Willey 

Karen Christopher (Sociology and Women's and Gender Studies)


Project Summary



By promising job training as well as an “easier” path to higher education, learn-and-earn programs shape the neoliberal education landscape and claim to offer upward social mobility while simultaneously solving the problem of the “skills shortage” in the workforce. Up to this point, though, the implications of partnerships such as these have not been attended to in composition and literacy studies. We would benefit from attending more intentionally to the effects of these programs in students’ lives, and from a more thorough understanding of how these programs mediate between individual, lived experience and broader ideologies about literacy, social class, and identity. 

Methodology: Institutional Ethnography

My methodological approach is significantly informed by institutional ethnography. Institutional Ethnography connects the micro level to the macro by looking toward how the everyday lives of real people are organized by institutions (Smith, 1987). In order to understand these mediating relationships, institutional ethnography turns to texts, which it sees as coordinators of social relations (Smith, 2002). 

Mobility, Literacy, and Identity

I argue that, through the mediation of texts and the sponsoring of particular literacy practices, this learn-and-earn program coordinates individual mobility and affective practices in ways that are concordant with neoliberal ideologies about development and success. I ground this discussion in the narratives participants tell about themselves and their work lives in order to foreground the idea that the demands of navigating this learn-and-earn "mobility network" have significant effects for how participants think about their education, their futures, and themselves.

Ownership, Agency, and Composition Pedagogy

In order to expand my analysis of the ways in which this learn-and-earn program coordinates individuals' lived experiences, I look to how participation in the program shapes their capacities for action and feelings of agency. I suggest that the concept of "ownership," when used in an institutional context, tends to function as a mediating value between individual perception and broader cultural narratives about labor and individualism in a neoliberal landscape. I then explore the implications of these forms of institutional control for composition pedagogy by arguing for ways that postsecondary writing educators might use our own mediating, institutional role to expand opportunities for agency and intelligibility for working students.