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.

There are two kinds of social difference that come in contact here like a short-circuit: the teacher vs the student, the self-that-one-is and the self-that-one-was. The premise of this moment — two teachers talking about their classroom problems — is that to be a teacher, one has to objectify one’s students. But then it becomes obvious — at least in this story, which is why it’s even a story — that this kind of objectification depends on a folk sociology. “Well, our students are from XYZ backgrounds…”: there’s a horrible potential there to slip over the line that separates benign objectification from outright essentialism.

But this time when that line gets crossed, the narrator can’t prevent herself from letting her own social identity come out in protest against the institutional hierarchy that usually precludes teacherly identification with the student masses. And there’s a joy and laughter in that moment of deconstructed hierarchy.

I would still observe, though, that one readily stops being working-class if one becomes a tenure-track college teacher. Class origins aren’t everything; they aren’t necessarily identical to class destinations. Which is why Kendig can apprehend one’s own social origins as something deeply rooted within her but also as something that has become outside and thus a bit uncanny.