Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Academic Elite: Who Are These People, Really?

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. 

Obviously, this isn't all that has been written on class issues in higher education, but these seem to have all come to head, right now, online and in real life, at least for me. Thinking about my graduate and teaching career, I have one question that nags at me:

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."


  1. Nicely done!!! This is a valuable list. And an excellent question. I just submitted something to U of Venus that speaks to the classism of faculty and their investment in the elite nature of their quote-unquote work. if it's accepted, you can add it to this list! (Even if it isn't, I'll put it up on my blog!)

  2. Lee - thanks for the shout out! Excellent post and I admit, as a sociologist, I'm a bit obsessed with social class. When I was working on my PhD, one faculty member in my department (who studied class and class-based social movements) said to me - "wow, you're the real deal." as if he had never met anyone whose father had worked in a car factory. The American Dream is the dream of moving up the class ladder - even though we don't talk openly about class - we talk about money instead - salaries, pay raises, bonuses, amount spent on cars, houses, vacations. Do we hope to gain class in becoming part of academia? or do we hope to gain knowledge? to me, the trappings of social classes are very much some sort of behind the curtain/wizard of oz game. in gaining knowledge, i think many of us hope to gain perspective on social class rather than wholeheartedly jump into selling out. my life is some strange mashup of working class meets semi-funky bohemian meets standard yuppie and I live those tensions on a daily basis - they are played out and performed in every move I make and every decision I labor over.

    music note - when I was growing up, I didn't listen to heavy metal or aor; we listened to motown and johnny cash - also the music of the poor but Flint's radio stations had a strong Detroit influence.

  3. Yes, who the bleep are these people? This is a question I've pondered from time to time. Like many of those who have responded to Pannapacker's latest article, I am not one of "them." I'm a grad student who is slowly working on climbing up the rungs in life, the first woman (and second person) in my entire family to go to college, and the first person in my entire family to go to graduate school. I spend a lot of time grappling with the economic disparities perpetuated in academia. But when I really get down to thinking about who exactly gave me this idea of rich vs. poor, privileged vs. struggling, "us" vs. "them," I realized: it was my family. It wasn't the professors with jobs that seemed much "cushier" than those held by my parents, but my parents themselves, who taught me about this divide, and hammered it in.
    My professor were the ones who encouraged me when they learned I was waiting tables full time to put myself through school as an undergrad, gave me thoughtful feedback on my assignments, and kept an open door at all times for when I wanted to talk about moving on to graduate school. It was my family, with no experience in higher ed, who frowned on my decision to get an education. Because that was for "them," and not for people like "us."

    I wonder how many people share this story.

  4. I thought I'd add a previous post I wrote on the myth of meritocracy. It has some relevant comments about class.

    I have a lot more comments (of course), just haven't had enough time to write a blog post contributing to the discussion!

    My experience was actually rather different in terms "impressing" the people who seem to have the most academic and cultural capital. For some reason this isn't a memory that stands out for me. Also the people I seemed to see around me at university were different from me (i.e. they actually *were* much more privileged in many cases). So this may depend on the university/college, place, or other factors of context. But I'll write more on this later this evening and post something substantial ;-)

  5. Thanks for this collection of excellent food for read and thought!

  6. To be in the right bunch I tried to like opera. Really tried. Couldn't do it. Just couldn't.

  7. I had a pretty surreal experience in terms of class and stereotypical academics when I first became involved in all things higher ed. My mentor was a WASP, who was funded by his mother and her trust fund. He did not understand why I needed to work in the summer to support myself. I was allowed at a very young age (19) to attend department parties where people were complete snobs, talking about high theory over expensive cheeses and wines. Reality seemed very hard to come by when I first entered academia. In many respects, my college years were similar what Karen Kelsky, where people felt too self-important and avoided reality or real life at all costs.

  8. Thank you for this round-up. On the question of remaining silent, I tried to address this yesterday here. You may find it interesting. Cheers!

  9. You make a good point....they're NOT the majority, not by a long shot. But for now they're a) in the most "powerful" positions (admin, tenured, and tenurable) and b) even non-elite people hide because as we've noted, the pressure to conform is so great if you want to be successfull. I can't tell you how many times I'd be at the conference hotel bar with a small group of academics who'd cautiously "come out." Sigh.

    Confession: for the last few months I've been screen capping comments, status posts etc. that best exemplify the "you have no fucking idea" class. (For example, someone complaining how HARD it is to find an apartment in Paris for their year-long paid sabbatical there.) I'm not sure what I'm going to do with them yet. Maybe we should start a multi-author Tumblr blog and just call it "You have no fucking idea."

  10. Thanks for this post. I've always wondered who were these people too. Where did they come from?? Yes, they aren't the majority but they do clearly have powerful positions...and willing to conform. I think that's what tragic is that we're missing out on the fact that those who teach probably have diverse backgrounds, interests, experiences and worse of all..they're hiding it all because of the fact that they feel that they have to confirm in order to be successful as academics. Wouldn't it be far better for all...if this wealth of knowledge, backgrounds etc be revealed...rather than quashed?


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