Working-class in academe

When the Minnesota Review changed editors a few years ago, the old back issues disappeared from their website. Fortunately, one of my favorite essays, Diane Kendig‘s “Now I Work In That Factory You Live In,” from the 2004 issue on Smart Kids, is still available through the internet archive. As one of my recent posts sparked a bit of discussion of social class in higher education, it occurred to me to look back at Kendig’s essay. It recounts a great moment where class status is revealed:

In 1984 I began full-time teaching in a tenure-track position at a small college in Ohio. One day, walking across campus with one of the most senior members of the faculty, I was discussing with him some classroom difficulty we were both having. He shook his head in resignation and said something I have heard faculty all over the world say so often, as though it explains everything, “Well, you know, most of our students come from working-class backgrounds.”

This time, for the first time, I did not stand there in shamed silence. Although it was not my most articulate moment, I said, “So what, Richard? So do I!”

He stopped walking as he threw back his head and laughed. Then threw his arm around me and said, “So do I, Diane. So do I.” I don’t know what that moment meant to Richard, but for me, that moment meant that I was able to say that being working class is not an excuse or a sorrow or a shame. It happens to be where I come from.

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A classroom scene, #1

I’ve decided to start typing up some of the scenes of everyday life at Paris 8 that made it into my fieldnotes. Here’s one encounter.

It’s the 1st of December, 2009. I’m having coffee with a young man who is my classmate in a class on The Symptom (le symptôme). I think his name is K., but am not sure. He has dark, long hair, a prematurely tired face, a short body, a set of metal crutches and a handicapped leg that dangles.

He is in trouble, he says. He says he doesn’t get what is going on in any of his seven classes. He isn’t sure what he is going to do when midterms come [les partiels].

We talk about the relationship between the department’s pedagogy and its politics. It’s unclear what the relationship is, we agree. But, he adds, one little link [un petit lien] comes in the form of the relations between professors and students. Our teacher in the symptom, for instance, is a lot closer to her students than a traditional teacher would be. But nevertheless: he doesn’t know her name. He doesn’t know any of his professors’ names, he says. He’s only there for the ideas, he says.

K. would leave Paris 8 after that school year, going back to Toulouse where he was from. He had been living in Paris in a cheap apartment, but had never been happy there, hadn’t made a lot of friends, he would tell me, resignedly.

K. was himself a symptom. Of something. His alienation, we might too readily suggest, was the social and subjective product of low status, youth, lack of Parisian social networks, and non-membership in the philosophical nobility, with its characteristic forms of language. He really believed in the intrinsic value of philosophical ideas that Paris-8 offered, but by his own account, couldn’t make sense of them.

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.

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The failed fantasy of pure meritocracy

From a post on a New York Times blog specifically about college admissions:

My daughter is a senior from a public school with a class size of 589. She has a 4.0 GPA with mostly advanced and AP classes, except required classes. She has an SAT of 2,250, ACT 36. So she is a National Merit finalist, President Scholar candidate, and a winner of MI Southeast Conference All Academy Award (only five students in her school win). She is a cellist in symphony orchestra and a varsity crew member on the rowing team.

Yet she was rejected by four Ivy schools and put on the waiting list for the University of Chicago. What went wrong? Her counselor was stunned by her rejection. What should she do to get off the waiting list?

Answer:Your daughter sounds like a terrific scholar, musician, and athlete. The world of selective college admissions is so hyper-competitive that trying to read the tea leaves about why decisions were rendered is almost impossible…

One feels sorry for the daughter, she is such a quantitatively perfect person. Her SAT score is higher than most graduate students’ monthly incomes. She has perfect grades. She has perfect stats. She has more honors and decoratations than a military veteran. She comes from a public school, so she isn’t too marked by obvious badges of class status. She appears, at least to her parent, as a completely flawless unit ready for insertion into what was, evidently, expected to be a flawlessly meritocratic system.
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American universities and class anxiety

Sometimes you hear claims that Americans don’t discuss social class. That it’s not a topic of public discourse. That it’s absent from our collective consciousness. (The late Molly Ivins, or else it was Barbara Ehrenreich, once claimed that ‘class’ was the one taboo topic in the op-ed pages.) To me it seems more accurate to say that class provokes collective anxiety in Americans. Certainly, this anxiety is unevenly distributed across the population; there’s a lot of rejection of class as a category, a lot of individualism, coupled to the ideology that “hard work has its just rewards.” But the anxiety keeps streaming through the social body, and occasionally it forms more pronounced eddies and ripples here and there.

Two essays in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education serve as excellent examples of this anxiety. One is a statement of overt class guilt by William Pannapacker (pseudonym Thomas Benton). He tells us he dreams of going back to his old neighborhood, only to comment that:

I also know the old neighborhood is the Tahiti of the former-working-class imagination: a dream of unselfconscious authenticity, acceptance, and deep familiarity with the rules of social interaction. Of course, it is a self-serving myth.

I know that I don’t belong in the old neighborhood, either. I made my choices long ago; or perhaps others made them for me. No one is awaiting my return. I think I can hear what they’d say: “You seem to like playing the working-class hero for rich people. Whatever. Do it if it works for you. You never belonged here anyway, even when you were a kid. If I could get out of here, I would. So get on with your life. We’ll be fine without you.”

Meanwhile, back on the job as a tenured professor — certifying the inherited status of his middle-class students — the self-proclaimed “academic class traitor” romanticizes his alienation and mocks his own naïve posturing. He realizes there are no people whom he can serve without some inner conflict.

I like this as an analysis of the dynamics of class fantasy. The professor with working-class roots (a) romanticizes his past; only to (b) reject his fantasy as a dream of acceptance; followed by (c) fantasizing his own rejection by his old associates; and finally concluding (d) with the thought that all social life involves psychic conflict and contradiction. Which is true; but it’s a conclusion that entails resignation, depoliticization, disempowerment. Pannapacker ends by remarking that he tries to deal with these contradictions by keeping an eye out for working class kids and encouraging them as he can. This is certainly better than wholly abandoning academia to the affluent, but it will never lead to political change. After all, to aid working class kids in becoming upwardly socially mobile is to presuppose the existence of class divisions that one can only cross on a purely individual level.

Whereas if we read Gary Lavergne’s “College Admissions as Conspiracy Theory,” (a book review of recent work on the inequities of higher education,) we get the opposite, a rejection of class guilt, but one that also seems to lead towards naturalizing economic privilege:

It irks me to read four books telling me that my children are “privileged” or that I’m part of an “alliance of equals” oppressing the poor. In these books my children are “privileged” because my wife and I stayed married, have good jobs, paid attention to what our children did, bought them books, got involved in their schools, and shared the benefits of an education we earned — all of which resulted in our kids’ not being poor and not getting Pell Grants (which apparently makes them rich). I don’t remember seeing any distinction drawn between a “privileged” family like mine and one with five generations of Yale graduates in its lineage.

Lavergne comes from a poor Louisiana background and made his way “upward,” I gather from the surrounding paragraphs. Needless to say, there’s lots of social differentiation that doesn’t directly correspond to wealth or class status per se, and he’s right to point out that there’s social differentiation among the affluent. And an interesting theme here is the importance of intense parental labor in helping their children to reproduce their class status – by helping them to get suitable educations. (Educational institutions remain central to the social reproduction of elites, as they have been for a long time. Apparently medieval monasteries got a substantial fraction of their members from the unwanted children of the nobility.) But the key move here is the claim that Lavergne’s poor origins make him less a member of the upper middle class. In other words: his past becomes a way of disavowing his class privilege in the present.

Lavergne goes on to argue that:

All parents, even the rich ones, want what is best for their children. The parents considered “privileged” in these books aren’t spending their time forming alliances to oppress others. What are they supposed to do? Not use what they have, nor do what they can, to achieve what is best for their children?

And consequently he suggests that the fundamental problem isn’t that elite students are overrepresented but that there simply isn’t the institutional capacity to give good educations to all qualified applicants. He rightly points out that there isn’t the political will to fund public universities at an adequate level or capacity. He concedes, of course, that “elite colleges are overpopulated with affluent young people,” but he ends by arguing that:

Every day I see thousands of “privileged” students sent to our campus by their once-underprivileged parents. It wasn’t easy for many of them to get there. They don’t deserve a guilt trip. For millions of us, social mobility is alive and well in capitalist America.

It strikes me that Lavergne, who manages admissions research for the University of Texas-Austin, has to confront the ugly facts of class stratification in America more than most, and we might view his book review as an attempt to manage the same class anxieties that Pannapacker articulates more clearly, the anxieties that seem to accompany upward mobility in America more generally.

But it bears notice that, in the same issue of the Chronicle, an article describes a rampant sense among academics that they’re imposters, that they don’t deserve to be there, that they’re constantly afraid of being found out as fakes or phonies. Apparently such feelings befall people from many social backgrounds: as the journalist sarcastically comments, “we have come so far in the American postindustrial meritocracy that everyone has equal access to guilt-ridden feelings of fraudulence.” Valerie Young, who is on a lecture tour to publicize her findings, seems to send the message: relax, and accept your success! “We couldn’t have all gotten here for crap reasons,” a graduate student apparently commented after Young’s lecture.

These articles reveal an active ambivalence about the social order of American academia and one’s individual place in it. But they also portray an active struggle to naturalize the status quo, to get one to accept one’s role, to stop worrying, to put an end to anxiety. To me, it’s a relief that these struggles aren’t successful, that anxiety persists, and that restlessness may ultimately lead to reform.