(See what I did there? That’s the second post in a row where I’ve come up with a clever title with two possible meanings, both in the traditional academic sense and in the socio-economic sense. Anyone? Anyone? Alright, I’ll get on with it.)
I was all set to write a post about how we remain obsessed with the Ivies and those top, elite colleges, to our own detriment. And I’m not just talking about how families will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to get little Jimmy and Suzy into Yale or Duke, but how we, in academia and the media, keep pushing these colleges as the standard, for better or for worse. Three items:
- In Forbes, Why Trying To Learn Clear Writing in College is Like Trying to Learn Sobriety in a Bar. College, of course, is limited to Brown, elite MBA programs, UCLA, and…that’s it.
- In the Chronicle, Academic English is Not a Club I Want to Join (sorry if the link doesn’t work or is behind a paywall). A little more variety, but still, big, public, elite, R1 institutions.
- In Slate, the response to William Pannaker’s essay, a laundry list of self-important success stories from Cornell, Johns Hopkins, Syracuse, and the Ohio State.
So, class has been on everyone’s brain lately. Not the kind of class that is about to start in less then three weeks (I really need to get on that), but the kind of class that involves money, social mobility, and how to properly “fit” into higher education. I want to start with a little bit of a roundup of recent posts that are either explicitly or implicitly about class issues. If I’m missing any, please let us all know in the comment.
- I ask, in response to Pannapacker’s original Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go post, Who Will be Our Future Professors? I explicitly address the issues of diversity in higher education given Pannapacker’s advice.
- Mary Churchill and Mike Brown debate How Our Educational Values Reveal Attitudes About Class and Social Class and Critical Education. So much of what Mary has written has helped refined my own understanding of race, class, and gender attitudes in higher education, as well as sharpening my resolve to stop being silent about it.
- Over at Speculative Diction, Melonie Fullick writes about how important it is that graduate students (and aspiring faculty) know their value, pointing out how much money and sweat equity a student puts into building a career in academia, and how challenging that is for students coming from lower socio-economic backgrounds.
- After Pannapacker hit the big-time in Slate, some hand-wringing about how successful and aware working-class PhDs are and how wrong Pannapacker is. And then, how those critics of Pannapacker don’t take the issue of gender into consideration.
- Worst Professor Ever shares her view on class issues in higher education, and then my own Bad Female Academic take on the whole thing (written before the whole Pannapacker in Slate thing blew up)
- Over at ProfHacker, they’re asking about “fit” within academia.
- James B. Jones shared this book with me, Reflections from the Wrong Side of the Tracks. Yet to read it, but I’m really interested.
- Kathryn Allan, over at her blog, also comments on class issues, which don’t seem to be all that dissimilar in Canada: Refusing Polite Conversation.
- Finally, the essay that, for me, started it all. A professor at Dartmouth asks, At What Cost? Her story resonated with me because she’s successful, but drowning in debt. Is this my future?
Who in the heck are these people who are forcing and enforcing a very clear and distinct set of class values on us? Seriously? Who are they?
Because it’s not the majority of people that I’ve met on my path to where I am right now. Maybe it’s because I’ve never attended an “elite” institution, either as a student or a professor. Maybe it’s because I self-selected the people I hang around with, naturally drawn to those with similar backgrounds to my own (my husband, for example, who is also an academic, is from the same socio-economic background as I am). Or maybe, like so much of what we believe about higher education, it’s all just a massive ruse that we’ve been blindly perpetuating.
I still remember being put in my place when I was an MA student by one of my professors. I was commenting on a novel we were reading, saying that it was written for “them” and not for ordinary people (or something like that). She took great offense to that, outlining all of the ways she was not one of them, in terms of her background. It was the first time I really took a step back and looked at the people in front of me and around me. Now, we did have a professor who was a stereotypical professor, in terms of both his class and attitude, but it was only one. And, I don’t remember one of my peers in the program who came from anything higher than lower-middle-class.
It was the same for my PhD. There was, again, one professor who was clearly “one of those professors” (he came from a very wealthy and influential family, apparently, and my colleague of mine was horrified when I revealed, no, sorry, never heard of them), but the rest of the professors were largely from working-class and immigrant families, as were my colleagues in the program. I’ve taught at four different universities in two countries and three states, and I have to say that the majority of my colleagues come form backgrounds similar to my own.
So why then does this obsession with class markers persist? Did we all get into higher education so we could be snobs? Really? And why do we keep requiring that aspiring academics perform tasks that we know they can’t afford? Go to conferences, work for peanuts, receive little institutional support both before and after the tenure-track job. Take on more and more debt, shop at the right stores, live in the right neighborhood, go to the right shows, the right conferences, etc.
We’re suffering in semi-silence. I can’t believe that, despite all of these voices speaking out, we can’t change higher education, if not structurally, then at least culturally. I refuse to meet certain cultural markers. I’m not good at “passing” (as Dr. Crazy writes about) and, judging by the comments and traffic my blog post has received, I’m not the only one who is either incapable, unwilling, or just plain burnt out about the whole thing.
I am serious, though. Where is this pressure coming from? Because, from where I’m sitting, there are more of “us” than there are of “them.”
My daughter was physically precocious when she was little; she was crawling before she was six months, walking by the time she was ten months old. She also loved to climb and would scale the jungle gyms at the park meant for children much, much older than she. It also meant that I had to be on the lookout for a tiny person who didn’t understand that it wasn’t a good idea to crawl right off the edge of the highest point of the structure. She dug for bugs, rolled in mud (well, sand, as she loves the beach), and generally challenged herself to any and all physical challenges.
This post originally appeared on So Educated.
“How will the Emperor maintain control without the beaurocracy?”
I feel like a quote out of context
Withholding the rest
So I can be for you what you want to see
I got the gesture and sound
Got the timing down
It’s uncanny, yeah, you think it was me
Do you think I should take a class
To lose my southern accent
Did I make me up, or make the face till it stuck
I do the best imitation of myself
That seems like a pretty good description of how we try to be as academics, especially women. We mould our research interests into a project that pleases our supervisor. We then contort ourselves in cover letter after cover letter in an attempt to fit what we divine a department is looking for from a brief job description. If we’re lucky, we dress in identical power suits (and, apparently, we’d best make sure they’re suits that match), and we try to fit ourselves, our research, our goals, and our values, to a hotel room of people in 30 minutes or less. Or we try to read the myriad of faceless voices at the other end of the phone in order to convince them to fly us out for a campus interview. Then, if we do get a campus interview, we spend up to three days, from the moment we get on the plane to the moment we’re finally safely back home, playing the role of ideal future colleague. If, by some miracle, we get hired, it dawns on us that we have to at least try to keep being that person who was interviewed. We also have to bend ourselves according to the wind and will of the department, faculty, and institution in the quest for tenure.
I’m exhausted just writing about it. But if you’re not convinced, here is a little Twitter conversation that took place in regards to a piece in the Chronicle on how inter-faculty conflict is your fault:
I think that sums it up quite nicely, don’t you think?
The most liberating thing that has ever happened to me was giving up my tenure-track job and ending up as “just” an instructor. I am now free to do whatever research interests me, rather than what I think will lead to tenure. As I am now place-bound, I’m not stressed about the job market or trying to be what I think people want to see. Even living in a small town has its advantages; there’s no hiding here (there’s also little competition for my job). For the first time in a long time, I’m truly free to be myself.
But this quasi-rebellious streak isn’t new. I’ve always made contrary choices (I prefer thinking of them as the road less traveled) when it comes to my education, in large part because I was searching for a place where I could be myself. I chose my dissertation supervisor because she allowed me to do the research and work that I wanted to do. Career-wise, that may not have been the wisest choice in the short-term, but what it did do was allow me to develop confidence in my ideas and my abilities. Miraculously, my first experiences teaching were ones that freed and empowered me to develop my courses myself; they trusted me, and I was able to be myself and discover my strengths in the classroom.
But my dirtiest secret is how I “won” my tenure-track job. I figured that the hiring cycle had finished. I had dozens of phone interviews, three on-campus interviews, and no job offer. We had just moved to larger place, my husband had just started receiving benefits from his job, and I found out I was expecting again. Because I had been working at my current teaching position for three years, I was eligible for a small, paid, maternity leave. When I got the call for a telephone interview, I just figured it would turn out like all the other phone interviews I had done. But it didn’t matter because I had the next academic year figured out. So I didn’t sweat the phone interview, and I answered every question as myself instead of trying to give them the answer they wanted. Imagine my surprise when I got the job.
Writing this blog, writing for the University of Venus, doing these Bad Female Academic posts have brought me so much joy. If anything, it’s really reinforced the idea that who I am, who I really am, is okay. In fact, it’s better than okay. It’s fantastic. Even if we’re living in a time of supposed extreme narcissism and unearned self-confidence, somewhere along the way, women (and especially women in academia) are told over and over again that being self-confident and self-assured in who we really are is unattractive, undesirable, and needs to be broken. To a large extent, writing these posts (and the response they’ve received) has helped “fix” me back into who I know I am.
One of the biggest challenges, however, is trying to pass that lesson along to my daughter. Especially when who she is is so different from who I am.
I’ve written about this issue before; that I’m a Bad Female Academic for having administrative ambition, but also how it’s a difficult position to put myself in because I am not on the tenure-track, thus it doesn’t “count”, nor am I afforded the same protections. Nonetheless, and despite being warned, I volunteered to be an “Early College Mentor.” What does this mean? Well, our college offers early college credit courses in the high schools and I will be mentoring the teachers in the high schools who are teaching these classes.