Could you write something about coming from a working class background? If you feel like talking about academic stuff, I'd like to know what you say when you get asked what your family does.
Ok, now I've talked about class before on the blog, but it's always been in the context of talking about other things, it seems, from doing a quick attempt at searching for posts about it. So I figured it would make sense to do a post in direct response to this question.
The short answer is that when I've been asked that question, I just tell people what they do. My mom currently works in insurance, but throughout most of my life she worked in various clerical positions. My dad was a steelworker when I was a kid and now is in charge of maintenance at a mall. My stepdad worked in a parking lot for years, and now runs a store with his brother. And no, none of these people has a clue about what my job really entails. They're ridiculously proud of me, but my career is something entirely separate from them.
My particular brand of academic insecurity has never involved insecurity about my family exactly. They are who they are. That's where I come from. It's always been simple. (Now, I've worried about my ability to pass as "belonging" in this profession, but that's a different thing than answering the family question. In fact, I have a friend whose father is a fairly public figure, and she is more reluctant to talk about that than I am to talk about my family's jobs. In other words, I think that this question can be troubling no matter what side of the class fence one grows up on.)
But I want to talk a bit how weird I find the question when it is asked. See, in my experience, people from my background don't ask it. Not really. And I've never asked somebody I've met in my adult life what their parents do. I don't get it. I mean, we're grown-ups, right? What difference does it make what our parents do for a living? Aren't there more pertinent topics of conversation? And nobody in my hometown circle has ever asked such a question of me. I mean, it comes up sooner or later, but it's not like, "And so, Crazy, what does your father do for a living? And your mother?" In my academic life, though, people have asked that of me, and I suppose maybe because I'm not used to the question being asked I just rock it out with the truth. I mean, what's the difference?
I think that what Sara's question gets at, though, is the shame that we can sometimes feel as members of this profession if we come from uneducated people. When we are surrounded by people whose parents are academics or lawyers or doctors or accountants, it can make us feel like we don't "belong" in an office alongside them. Nobody at our dinner tables talked about books that they were reading or what happened "at the office" that day; nobody discussed buying a "summer home" or even annual family vacations. Most of us probably didn't go to camp; most of us probably didn't go to elite universities because it was a big enough deal that we could find a way to manage the state university down the road. Most of us probably didn't travel to Europe until we were in graduate school; we most likely didn't study abroad as undergraduates. We didn't take unpaid internships over summers. We weren't necessarily encouraged to "find ourselves" before choosing a career.
In other words, as much as I say that I'm not embarrassed about my family, and I just say what they do without thinking twice about it, I also recognize very deeply the ways in which my experience that brought me into this profession differs radically from many of the people who work in this profession alongside me. And yes, that difference in experience can lead to certain kinds of insecurity, even as I own the background that brought me to this point. What has been fabulous about my current job is that I have learned not to be as insecure about that stuff, in large part because my particular experience is so incredibly valuable with dealing with the student population that I teach. While it may not be identical to each student's experience, it has many common features, and I really get their anxieties, the roadblocks to high achievement that stand in their way, and the fact that for most of them that education is a scary thing, because it really does threaten their most intimate relationships. Because I understand those things, I can help them to navigate their educations in ways that other professors might not be as equipped to do. And so, sure, there are still moments of shame. But there are far more moments of pride.