Refusing Polite Conversation: Class and the Academy

Tuesday, 02 August 2011 14:26

I actually wrote the following post weeks ago, but I wasn’t ready to post it. First, I felt too exposed in this piece, and second, I know that is not, well, classy to discuss money with strangers. Well, to the hell with that – after reading Lee Skallerup Bessette’s and Amanda Krauss’ recent posts on class in the academy, I can’t think of a good reason not to post now. I’m not the only one!

I did not fully appreciate class differences until I went to university. I grew up in that Canadian grey area between working class and lower-middle class. There was always enough food and clothes (even if there were no brand names and often hand-me-downs), but money was a constant issue of stress and conflict. I overheard innumerable arguments about money and learned to adopt the attitude that “hard work doesn’t mean wealth” (which would come in hand in grad school). Throughout high school, I was aware of the fact that any post-secondary aspirations I had were my own responsibility to fulfill: I would have to pay for my books, transportation, and tuition. So I lived at home, made the 1.5 hour commute to campus, worked during my summers, took out student loans, and studied hard to win bursaries and scholarships. This is not an uncommon experience.

Still, it was during undergrad when I realized the socio-economic disparity between myself and many of my peers. The friends I made all came from families who were solidly middle-class or higher: their parents covered tuition, allowances, and living expenses. Visiting their homes was culture shock – everything was new, top-of-line, and (to me) indulgent. I remember looking into a friend’s freezer and discovering that they had three kinds of popsicles – and they were the “good kind” with swirls and real fruit (not the off-brand “freezies” that we had at my house). It is funny how such a seemingly small thing – a brand of popsicle – can speak volumes to class expectations.

I made it through undergrad with $20,000 in student loan debt and the idea that one day, hopefully, I would have a freezer full of the finest in frozen desserts. I imagined a future where I didn’t live month-to-month on a wage, where I could travel and buy the little extras that seemed to make life for my friends that much better than it was for me. Higher education was my route up and out of the working class. Or at least I had thought.

Entering graduate school was a whole other playing field in the game of class norms. I’ve never been very successful hiding my class background, mostly due to the fact that I don’t feel a need to, but I will admit to feeling insecure about my cultural knowledge amidst my new peers. I grew up listening to Top 10 lists on the radio and came from a house that never had cable TV or the internet. I read old Beetle Baily and Hagar the Horrible comic books growing up and didn’t see a symphony or opera until I was well into my university education. I felt distinctly unclassy next to my classmates whose parents were professors, lawyers, and engineers. I also felt really, really poor. And that feeling only increased as each year passed and my already well-to-do peers landed grant after grant while my applications were consistently rejected.

I think part of the reason I failed at grant writing is because I never truly got the hang of the necessary academic language. I’ve spent most of my adult life relearning the pronunciations and correct usages of the “big words.” I know all the important ones now, but I still don’t use them often. I strongly believe that communication should be as clear as possible – and much of academic language is too esoteric and convoluted for someone uninitiated in the discipline to easily follow. Professors always commented that my writing was “clear.” From some that was a sincere compliment, but from others it came across as a backhanded one. Through such small social and institutionalized codes of conduct, I was always aware of my class status. I sought out others who didn’t see my mispronunciations and gaps in cultural knowledge as signs of my unsuitability for academia (and yes – there were definitely a few individuals who gave me little intellectual credit due to these slippages). I found the silence around matters of money infuriating. In my experience, people who have money are always the ones the least comfortable talking about it – and academia is quiet as a tomb.

A good deal of my anger is directed at the high-earning faculty members who continue to encourage naïve young people, who may not have much financial stability or family support, to enter graduate education without informing them of the financial burden of such an undertaking. It is irresponsible and an example of the worst kind class ignorance rife in academe (not everyone can afford grad school or has access to professional networks that will ensure them of a job when they are done). I have little respect for faculty and graduate students who espouse leftist politics of equality and ability, and yet are unwilling to re-evaluate their own privileged class positions or sacrifice any of their income and time to help those less fortunate in their community.

Of course, not everyone in academia is the middle-class ideal or an upper-class snob – but it certainly is an easier place for those who can claim those statuses. For those of us who weren’t lucky to be born into wealth (and it is luck, not a right), we have to choose whether or not we should try and pass (knowing that eventually, our lower class backgrounds will be exposed). I guess I could have tried harder to get the language down just right and I could have avoided bringing up the shameful discrepancies in graduate funding so often. But I am proud of the way I conducted myself as a graduate student. If I had been anything less than myself, I fear that I may have been trapped in academia forever. I would have accepted the low pay, stressful workload, and uncertain job prospects and remained unhappy in a system of economic exploitation.

I never really expected to get rich from higher education, but I did expect better than what I received. I guess I expected an academic job when I first started my MA – after all, that was what I was told would happen. When I saw the possibility of academic employment as the mirage it has become for so many PhDs, I was suddenly grateful for my class background. I think it helped me see the academic system for what it is – I was able to develop a Plan B and not feel entirely crushed that I am not going to have a tenured job. Aside from one extended family member who holds a teaching degree, I am the first person in my family to reach this level of education. I am proud of that distinction, because it has not been easy to achieve.

University has not been the road to riches for me, but it has given me the opportunity to live my life on my own terms. With a PhD under my belt, I feel that I can go toe-to-toe with anyone (even if I still stumble on a word here and there). If I can survive grad school (while being poor and sick), I can survive any career challenges that lie ahead for me. I do not feel embarrassed by my less-than-middle-class background; I’m happy with where it has taken me. And besides, I still appreciate a really good popsicle.

1 comment

  • Comment Link Brenden Murphy Thursday, 10 April 2014 20:04 posted by Brenden Murphy

    I just discovered your excellent blog and I have to say that between this and the post about being alienated from gradschool and made to feel a cog, that my neck is sore from nodding "Yes, yes. Yes! YES! That! So Much That!"
    I quit the academy after my MA, but from you PhD grad date, I'd guess we were undergrads in Ontario at around the same time. I mention it because a friend and I noticed back in 2002 that we were among the last blue collar students. Tuition had tripled in the previous decade and people from lower-middle income families were only just starting to give up on university.
    By the end of my time in the academy, I found that I was the only one I knew at school who didn't grow up in professional household.
    For me the really jarring class things were two fold:
    1) I'm from industrial SW Ontario and went to university in Ottawa, so the lack of factories really weirded me out - it made me really aware that I didn't belong in that landscape, like I was a foreigner, people like me couldn't grow up there because their parents wouldn't have had jobs!
    2) I was the nerdy kid in my classes, mocked for my 'Big Words', but I grew up a factory-worker's child surrounded by factory-workers' children - I swear like a long-haul trucker and don't always speak that way intentionally. I remember more than once during classroom discussions, peels of laughter at my use of 'fuck' in place of 'umm' as a chance to gather my thoughts.
    Anyway, thanks for this and I look forward to reading the whole blog and probably the book too (I found your work google-searching in follow up to reading a series of posts on sfsignal about disability and SFF called 'Special Needs in Strange Worlds')

    This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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