Bad Female Academic: Am I In the Wrong Class?

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.)

14 thoughts on “Bad Female Academic: Am I In the Wrong Class?”

  1. I've been through so many incarnations of this, myself: not shopping at Walmart, shopping at Walmart and not admitting it, not shopping at Walmart and saying I did (just to be *that* person), shopping at Walmart and admitting it, not to mention boycotting Walmart and then secretly shopping there… Eventually, yes, I came around to just shopping there and admitting it. But if I had a nickel for every time some colleague bragged "oh I never even go over to that side of town"…..

    What's it all about? What's funny is just how many of those same colleagues do NOT come from privileged backgrounds. It's all playacting and insecurity, which makes it all the more necessary, I guess.

  2. Ha, well, you know I agree with you here! And re: what Karen says, I too have witnessed many academics trying to hide where they really came from…it's just sad. I mean, I got in trouble all the time but at least I wasn't wasting my energy trying to pretend!

  3. Yes to all of this!

    NPR is pretty much my nemesis. I understand why people like it, but classical music bores me and I hate having the radio talk at me. This has everything to do with my upbringing, with its complicated immigrant / raised-working-class parents and yet a more-or-less middle-class existence.

    And yes, it was one of many reasons I didn't fit.

  4. Thank you. This is an excellent essay, and absolutely accurate. I teach at a small liberal arts college, and I'm recommending that my advisees read it. (I confess I prefer movies with car chases and explosions to exotic foreign films.)

  5. Thank-you, everyone, for the supportive words! I know I'm not to the only one, and it drives me nuts that we don't talk about these issues. We all seem to suffer in silence. Let's break that silence!

    @Anonymous: I, too, like a good explosion and car chase. Summer blockbusters are my bread and butter.

  6. Excellent, terrific, and, hey, loved it. Sez the woman who spent MANY years hanging out with dishwashers and busboys and so never *quite* got the hang of academia.

    And yes, the posturing is, well, depressing.

  7. I love this post even though my background probably *does* easily conform to at least a secure middle-class upbringing… As a student I function quite well in my chosen university environment (well, sort of), but there are so many classist aspects to not only the access, but also the material and experiences in academia, it drives me batty.

  8. Interesting. My dad was a truck driver and my mum was a nurse, so I relate. Some different cultural references, and I did HE here when it was free and Johns Hopkins paid for most of my grad school, but same game. Here there's more consciousness about your primary/secondary educational background or its legacy–can you play the viola (can't), speak mandarin (can't) etc. I get some satisfaction catching people out, like a famous historian who blathered on about his French, and laughed at "tossers"* who say they can speak French but in fact only have holiday French, until his wife revealed he only had holiday French. *low-registering British word meaning one who masturbates.

  9. I don't understand all the complaints about elite *culture*. What I remember from graduate school was the disdain (supported by the Cultural Studies mentality) for high culture (you know, "canonical" as a term of slander, as opposed to a synonym for "really good") I thought I was finally getting access to. I don't miss that.

    I'm listening to Beethoven right now, while I do my software engineering job. If I were defined by my background (Detroit, working class), I'd be listening to Ted Nugent.

  10. I never remember discussing any of that kind of stuff with colleagues when I lived in the US. Maybe it's just different in economics departments… My Swedish colleague just loved Walmart when she visited the US – such low prices. I never know, what all this discussion of "fit" is about. They do check whether you can "behave" yourself – dress nicely and eat properly etc. I guess. But the presentability criteria would come up in any professional job I think. And if you are a genius you can get away with anything in academia. Again, at least in science and econ.

  11. The other day in my grad class, my professor suggested listening to NPR. I listened for about 5 minutes before deciding that it was not for me; glad I'm not the only one in the academic world that can't stand talk radio. I would much prefer some lively DJ banter and upbeat rock and roll any day. Unfortunately (or fortunately?), I will not be adding to the discourse on NPR during class any time soon.

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