Throughout my examination of the pressures female academics face to conform in order to “make it”, and how I (attempt to) resist or break, or simply just don’t fit those expectations, it’s become increasingly clear that a lot of the issues surrounding being a Bad Female Academic isn’t just about policing gender, but it is about class (socio-economic) expectations. When I admit that I am loud or that I like to get dirty, I am essentially signaling a lower-class upbringing.
This is important when discussing the ever-nebulous issue of “fit” when it comes to hiring and tenure decisions. During one of my on-campus interviews, one of the faculty who was taking me around campus revealed that she had attended school in Southern California near where I was currently living. We got talking about living in SoCal; the traffic, the weather, our favorite beaches, local news, going to the Getty Museum, and the like. I made the mistake, however, of revealing that I listened to KROQ, a rock-alternative station. Their morning show, in particular, isn’t known to be very progressive when it comes to issues of sexism (they have an annual Miss Double-D-cember contest), racism, and homophobia. But, to me, they are hysterical, don’t take themselves too seriously, and often take-down the self-importance of Hollywood/L.A. And, I really like the music.
Obviously, the correct answer was that I listen to NPR or a classical music station. Even if I had lied and said that, it would soon become clear that I didn’t, in fact, listen to these stations when I would be unable to offer comment on that morning’s feature story. Honestly, I hate talk radio. I appreciate classical music, but need something a little more…invigorating to start my day. I grew up in a house filled with popular and rock music. We listened to music in the mornings, peppered through with the news (sports scores were essential) and funny bits done by the DJs. I’m not sure how much of it has to do with class, but there are certainly assumptions to be made because of my favorite kind of music and what I like to listen to on the radio.
But it’s not just what kind of radio I enjoy listening to. These expectations start to permeate every decision I make, especially as a mother. I let my kids watch TV, even indulging in my daughter’s love of Disney Princesses. I don’t have a nanny, but instead send them to preschool, and not one that is a Montessori. These are all revelations that slowly by surely leak out as I become more and more integrated in the community. Where one shops, what kind of food or clothes one buys, it all reflects a certain class expectation.
For example, I shop at Wal-Mart. This, in many academic circles, is a sin punishable by death, or at least a good shunning. But here’s the problem. I can’t afford not to shop at Wal-Mart. For groceries and basic necessities for the kids, it’s the most affordable option available. I would love to be able to afford to drive an hour to shop at Whole Foods, or the organic co-op, but I can’t. The student loan debts my husband and I have from our educations are taking huge chunks from our income.
Here is where class really comes into play. Those of us who had to go into a great deal of debt to get their PhDs often can’t afford to play the game of being a good “fit” or embodying the non-academic values of higher education. I want to take my kids to the symphony or the ballet, I want to sign them up for culturally enriching opportunities, and not just because of the societal pressure of my job, but I can’t afford to. And that inability to pay can be interpreted as refusing to teach my own children the proper “values,” thus calling into question my “fit” in an academic setting. We are also often the same people who came from a lower class to begin with, meaning that all of those “free” symbols of class that come naturally to some aren’t obvious, comfortable, or authentic for us.
When we talk about diversity in academia and what it means to be a “good” academic, we can’t forget the economic privilege that exists for those who have long set the rules as to what it means to be a Good Academic.
(Worst Professor Ever and I must share a brain, or at least be on the same wavelength; while I was writing this post, she published “You Stay Classy, Ivory Tower!” I encourage you to read her very similar reactions to the class expectations of higher education. I think the more voices we have talking about this very real issue, the better.)