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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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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How rich is Yale?

A really interesting section here from Gordon Lafer’s 2003 piece, “Land and labor in the post-industrial university town: remaking social geography” (which Zach suggested to me):

The common sense definition of “non-profit” is an organization whose income just barely covers its expenses. The designation of universities as non-profit institutions encourages one to think of them as organizations that are modest by nature. Even a school like Yale, which is obviously well endowed, is often imagined to be operating close to the margin, devoting whatever income it generates to the provision of high-quality education and leaving just a small cushion between the university’s costs and its revenues. The truth is that Yale pursues an active policy of accumulating surplus wealth, and that by 1996, its annual earnings exceeded its operating costs by nearly $1 billion.

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Visual culture and institutional difference: Paris-8 & the Sorbonne

merry crisis

A sudden piece of English text inserted in the middle of an exhibition of political photographs at my field site. Paris-8. A charming metacommentary on global reality. Merry crisis!

If you wanted to describe this image in the most basic descriptive language you could say: this is a photo of a photo of a graffiti tag set among other photos, photos of people bloody in protests, of police in riot gear lines, of people running and throwing things, of people invisible in showers of light. See that flood of white in the photo immediately beneath Merry Crisis? With the figure askew and silhouetted? I have no idea what that is. But I do comprehend that this is a collage of leftist protest culture, aestheticized in the genre of an art photo exhibition, and further recontextualized in the form of political statement attached on the outside of Paris-8’s Bâtiment B2. Paris-8 is a university with an enormous visual text taped and sprayed across its walls. Campus buildings frequently have deteriorated walls, just from the sheer number of signs (affiches) that have been put up and torn up and torn down. It’s the kind of place where images, like this one, are not only compound visual objects (referencing other visual objects and visual genres), but are units in an overwhelming student reappropriation of academic space, a culture of defacement of the corridors that someone jealous of property rights might call vandalism with a political alibi.

This defacement has limits, though, being essentially restrained to surfaces within arm’s reach of the ground. The buildings themselves tell a different story.

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Class bias in higher education

Just discovered an interesting blog by a law professor, Jeffrey Harrison, called Class Bias in Higher Education. He comments on how elites signal their status through a visible non-engagement with others, a sort of bodily disdain, a “stiff upper lip”; he remarks on how people choose to spend or invest their social capital (suggesting that elites tend to hoard it for spending on themselves); he suggests that practically no law professors want to talk about class; he comments on the irrational selection process for new hires; he also suggests that there is an enormous (and unjustified) bias in favor of job candidates from elite schools.

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