Jeffrey Williams on academics’ class status

I decided today that it would be wise to quit Facebook and put more energy into this blog. If there’s anything I’ve learned in graduate school, it’s that it works wonders to channel one’s excess energy into something that’s not work but that nonetheless involves making something. Music. Writing. Cleaning the house.

Anyway, I’ve been working on an essay about precarious work in French universities, and I came across a passage that I think is a great starting point for any analysis of academics’ class status. It’s in an essay, “Smart,” by Jeffrey Williams, a literary critic; it’s one of the best essays about academic culture that I know. In this passage, Williams is trying to teach us that academics’ class status is ambiguous: definitely not working class in the traditional sense, but distanced, often, from the conventional markers of professional success.

Class is not just a question of what money you have or don’t have, nor solely a question of status conferred by cultural capital, but that it marks your body. If you look at most fellow academics’ hands, you’ll rarely see calluses.

I start with this… to broach both the visibility and invisibility of our class position. As academics, especially in the humanities, we have a vexed relation to class. On the one hand, by normal markers such as educational level (only about 10% of Americans have grad degrees, not to mention doctorates), the kind of work we do (white collar, with some autonomy, setting our own hours, etc.), salaries (which, while we might complain of how low they are, are much above the national mean, and certainly higher than, say, school teachers), as well as by tastes (what kind of magazines we have on our coffee tables—if you’ve ever tabulated the survey at the end of Paul Fussell’s Class), we are of the cultivated classes. Attaining our position through educational credentials, we are quintessential denizens of the professional-managerial class.

On the other hand, we often eschew or deny our class position, projecting a distance from the normal parameters of class in America. There are several ways that we do this: sometimes by projecting a kind of bohemian position on the peripheries of, if not antagonistic to, normative culture (we’re not like sharkskin suited lawyers, but wear jeans and open collars, and proclaim our queerity); sometimes by asserting a clerical position set against mainstream capitalism (we are not profit-seeking businesspeople, instead working in the non-quantifiable realm of culture, whether conservatively sanctifying its lineage or progressively opening it); sometimes by celebrating our uselessness (we fumble at basic tasks like filling out forms, because we reside in the higher realm of the mind); and sometimes by proclaiming our political resistance (as intellectuals, we stand outside capitalist society to criticize and resist it). Thus we are the class that somehow stands outside class.

In some ways this plays out a characteristic attitude toward class in America, that, because we are all in the great middle class, we do not experience the class distinctions of the old world. This affects what the German sociologist Hans Speier calls the “masked class membership” of the middle classes. But it also has specific permutations in academe, and we experience and enact class in distinctive ways. This holds true especially in the humanities, that have a traditional bearing set apart from business and little commercial crossover. In the post-welfare state university, some of the sciences, technological programs, and practical disciplines, like business, are oriented toward paying their own way, through grants, business “partnerships,” and patentable results, so do not oppose the world of commerce. Rather, they embrace it. (If you look at the cars in the parking lots around the quad, you’re more likely to see Mercedes, BMWs, and Lexuses near their buildings, instead of the Hondas near ours.) Members of those disciplines might give up some of the humanistic aura of the university, but they express less ambivalence about their class position.

Many of our codes and practices play out our peculiar relation to class. Most academic measures purport a structural neutrality, beyond class, but they also carry with them, and inculcate, a distinctive range of affects designating our class. While we are not marked with the striations of class in the visible ways that a stooped factory worker might be after twenty years at a drill press, we are nonetheless marked by the ways that we feel, experience, and act out professional life. Some of the difficulty of talking about this realm of feeling or affect is that it is more amorphous than visible marks, but it is not any the less tangible—tangible when the ticket agent acts deferentially to us when it says “Dr.” on our itinerary, or when at the faculty meeting the full professor frowns at the tentative assistant professor and adjuncts aren’t even allowed, or when the persistent student expects us to be in our office 9-5, by his or her lights seeing us as the clerk behind the counter of the educational department store, by our lights misrecognizing our true position. Or tangible, as Stanley Fish has pointed out, when we drive sensible cars. Affect is how we embody our class position, and in a sense generates our class position.

It’s a splendid piece of social observation: it remarks on frowns, on hands, on academics’ titles and their choices of automobile. The observational detail is, perhaps, more sparse than in an ethnographic text; Williams uses his details to illustrate his analysis, rather than using the analysis to try to make sense of the details. But I think he is right to call attention to the fact that American academics participate in larger fantasies about American classlessness. And he’s right to raise the spectre of the Bohemian heritage (a real study of academic bohemianism is long overdue).

One does wonder two things about this analysis. First, of course it’s true that academics’ class status is going to be shaped by the larger class structures of the society where they live. But don’t academics have a peculiar mixed-class status elsewhere as well? In France, for instance? And, relatedly, aren’t academics more socially heterogeneous than Williams makes out? There are plenty of underemployed adjuncts out there — they clearly don’t have the same class position as the Ivy League tenured superstars, even if they share a professional identity. Class and professional identity are not always synonymous.

One thought on “Jeffrey Williams on academics’ class status

  1. Good subject, Eli! It occurred to me that maybe academics considering themselves to be exempt from class is a bit like white people exempting themselves from thinking about race. Easy as long as one stays within in a segregated social space.

    And I’ve been thinking about the role intellectuals play in social change lately too. It seems like there’s a tension between the radical revolutionary role that Marx thought intellectuals would play and then Veblen’s idea that the things people learn from elite educations are really just markers of belonging to a class with plenty of leisure time.

    I guess the difference between their views is that for Marx the intellectuals actually have ideas and follow through on them politically, whereas… well, I’m not sure exactly what Veblen thinks is the content of academics’ ideas, actually. He was one, after all!

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