Wednesday, November 14, 2007

So, What Do Your Parents Do?

Sara over at With a Duck is responsible for the question that inspires this post. (Thanks, Sara! And I don't think you've commented before - would you like to be on the blogroll?) Sara writes:

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.


Dr. Bad Ass said...

My father was a machinist and my mother was a secretary/accountant (before she got her bachelor's degree in Literature at the age of [drum roll, please] 67). I have often thought that both the working class focus on earning your way through life, taking care of family, etc. has stood me well in academia. Here I could choose to be a flake and avoid work (and probably still be moderately successful and get paid about the same amount) or I could work my ass off, which I do! and garner respect from others and myself. So I'm pleased about where I come from. But people don't ever ask me about my parents.

And now that I've commented a few times, could you please add me to your blogroll? Please? and thank you.

Lesboprof said...

I was naive enough that when I got in my first professional position, I was shocked that some other academics had had such different and privileged experiences growing up. In my undergrad, grad, and doctoral programs at state schools, almost all of my colleagues were from working class or lower-middle class backgrounds. The two peers in my doc program who had more elite families-of-origin were the ones who were out of place.

In my first academic position, upon hearing I was Jewish, a religious studies professor asked me when I made my aliyah (trip to Israel). I explained that in my synogague, the only people who went to Israel were adults, as a once-in-a-lifetime event; no one sent their children. I still have never made that trip.

Another of my colleagues chastised me for talking about salary issues and referencing the "salary book." She said snidely that it must be about class differences; in the toney neighborhood in which she was raised, she learned that it was crass to reveal and discuss salaries.

I am with you... I just talk about it and don't feel bad at all about my family working hard.

Dr. Curmudgeon said...

One of the interesting notions about this question is the assumption that to be in academia you come from that privileged background and that you've brought all benefits with you.

I recently had a colleague suggest that I shouldn't worry so much about pay inequities because surely my parents and family were helping with support. The colleague revealed as the conversation progressed that they had received a sizable downpayment on their house from their parents and that "without that, we'd never have been able to afford it." I'd have chalked that up to just that one colleague's take, but I've had similar discussions with my Dean.

k8 said...

I think all of this is fascinating. I come from a family where the job question is asked but salaries are not discussed. After the first time I talked to my freshman year roommate before college began, the first thing my dad asked me was "what does her father do for a living?" Yeah, it was a gendered question too, which is surprising (to me) since my mother has always worked and there was never the expectation that my siblings and I wouldn't. I'd say we were pretty solidly middle class, but maybe a bit more aware of class differences. My mom was a social worker and my dad was a mortician, so they didn't have white collar jobs in the traditional sense, and their jobs put them in contact with people across all classes.

I am amazed at how many people in my grad program are from extraordinarily privileged backgrounds. I think the point Dr. Curmudgeon makes about parental support is a great one. I can't even imagine asking my parents for the down payment for a house! I know that if I was really in serious trouble, they could help me out, but I couldn't ask them to pay for my occupational choice. They certainly couldn't give me that kind of money. The irony of all of this is, is that some of the people I know who stridently rail against the class divide have absolutely no clue. They live in a privilege bubble and can only understand many of the issues through abstractions.

Anonymous said...

I've been thinking about this lately, actually, because I talked about my background in my job letter and I wonder if they'll mention that in my interview. My parents have the same sort of jobs. my dad had a job digging ditches for underground sprinkler installation when I was a kid and he fixed people's cars on the side. now he's an EMT. bad back = no more ditches. my mom is an RN. She got a BA later, when I was in jr high I think but I have no idea what it's in.

I also don't really understand the job question but have been asked it. Actually, I think I've asked it myself but only because I was picking the brain of some student colleague, trying to find out if s/he was like me.

Anyway, after reflecting on my educational history, I've decided I felt least out of place in terms of background during my two years at community college. everybody there came from working class people, had parents who weren't especially interested in their education (e.g. didn't expect or demand any particular performance), and nobody thought it was odd that my family wasn't paying for my schooling--or even helping me financially--nor that my parents weren't especially interested in my schooling.

I'm not saying every working class family is disinterested in their child's education. I'm saying that was a pretty typical experience for my cc experience, where people take a few classes here and there while they work and most people will probably not go on to get a degree. I've felt out of place in some respect in both my (bottom fourth tier) christian college and my current situation, where I only know maybe three people who don't come from either money or bohemian intellect or both.

Sara said...

Hm, I don't think my comment went through, since it seems not to be appearing. Thanks for the post, though, and the reassurance that our backgrounds might in time be an advantage to us. Sometimes I despair of that, like when I have to explain to my composition class what welfare is, that it's not really a way to keep people from becoming lawyers and bankers. And yes, I would like to be on your blogroll!

Sorry if this shows up twice.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

In my case, Mom was stay-at-home; Dad was low-level (and thus easily laid-off) cube monkey. I was a free lunch kid.

I was surrounded by privilege at my undergraduate alma mater, a mid-range SLAC. But grad school was full of people from backgrounds only slightly better than mine. The real difference was in my conversations with well-meaning faculty, who wanted to know why I didn't just ask my parents to help me pay the rent/buy the interview suit/pay for me to go home for the holidays. I think they thought I was some sort of a martyr for not asking for help; it never occurred to them that doing so would have meant a substantial sacrifice for my parents, so I couldn't bring myself to ask.

My current job sees me surrounded by other people of socioeconomic background similar to my own (I got into a fun faux-nostalgic conversation with a colleague about those 5-lb bricks of "cheese" they handed out a couple times a year). But at conferences, I still think of myself as "passing."

the rebel lettriste said...

This is a wonderful question! My parents are social workers; my father is the first in his family to go to college. Which makes me the first ever Dr. Dad's-Last-Name! They took out a 2nd mortgage to pay for my and my brother's BA's. And we both still graduated deeply in debt.

My paternal uncle, who is single and childless, works on a roadcrew as an industrial plumber. He has done this for almost 40 years, now. And he, a man who never considered college for himself, has financially supported my education more than anyone else in my family. Because he/we/I am working class, he will never SAY that he loves me or is proud of me. He just silently slips me a check, "for school," or for my student loans.

He and my father are the sons of a widow who worked in factories, cleaned houses, ran a deli, and never opened a bank account.

My dissertation is dedicated to her.

Belle said...

'Nother one here. I think that for me, the worst aspects of entering academia as a grad student were 1) hearing my more privileged colleagues moan about their privilege ("I didn't get a full scholarship, only this measly three year ride and a Fulbright..." and 2) knowing that those who loved and supported me most had no clue what I was doing or was expected to do. For my family, teaching at a university was simply a matter of teaching at a fancier high school; my worries about unemployability were always countered with 'the local (primary) school is always looking for substitute teachers.'

flacius1551 said...

I come from the bottom end of the lower middle class, although I didn't realize that until I went to an SLAC where there were a lot of children of wealthy families, as most of the people I knew grewing up were in the same category or worse off than we were. I didn't know my grad cohort very well--I conducted my personal life away from the dept--but I was indeed surprised to discover how many of my tenure class at a large public R-1 were from privileged backgrounds. I do think those background gave them both cultural and financial advantages. However, I am emotionally freer than almost all of them. When I finished my BA I had already "made it further in life" than anyone in the last four generations fo my family at that point. I have no status anxiety. I never worry if I am "good enough" economically or if I am "living up" to the familly standard. My whole fmaily is a bit astounded that one can be paid to do what I do, and so I am, frankly. It is a huge gift. When I see my students from the upper middle class under pressure from their parents to pick a career or succeed, I feel so sorry for them, worrying that they are going to be the people who let their family down.

Rokeya said...

I just want to add another perspective to this. I think there is a danger in considering "class" in isolation, apart from other factors, such as race or immigration status. What "privilege" might mean in terms of class will translate differently when you look at how class is intertwined with other things. My father is a professor and my mother is a doctor, but when they came to the U.S., because of the type of visa my mother had, it was illegal for her to work in this country and she did not practice medicine for over a decade. Indeed, she hasn't practiced ever since, doing other jobs in hospitals or clinics but not practicing as a doctor. Yes, my father is a professor, but when we came here he was also supporting our family (wife plus two kids) here *and* sending money back home to relatives, a responsibility he accepted but that put a lot of financial burden on us. He faced a lot of discrimination and we suffered because of it. When I tell people my father is a professor now, it is definitely a weird space--some people take that to mean I'm of a similar class identity as them (the doctor/lawyer/academic class you speak of) when I do NOT share that class identity and usually can't perform it (I am "exposed" rather quickly). My parents have lived in a lower middle-class/working class neighborhood for the past fifteen years and are just now building their own house (they are almost in their 70s!). I tend to fit in better with folks without that privileged background, but then if I tell them about my father's profession, it's like I am an's a weird place to negotiate, and much more complex than I think "class" implies. It's not as simple as what your parents do for a living.

Dr. Crazy said...

Rokeya, I didn't mean to imply it was simple, nor to privilege class as the only or most important thing at stake in such conversations. I was just responding from my own experience to the question that was asked. Broadly, I think we can say that within academia there can be certain assumptions about background, which ultimately are pretty narrow. If one is on the "outside" of those expectations - because of one's class background, ethnic background, whatever, then one has to negotiate that outsider status. For me, the question is exactly as simple as what my parents do for a living, because I have the privilege of whiteness.

Doctor Pion said...

My father was (and, in a sense, still is even though he has been retired for over a decade) an engineer. My mother was (and still is) a housewife and volunteer. Since my father worked for the state for the chunk of his career while we were growing up, we lived on a middle class salary. One car, for instance.

I'm glad you got around to the comment I expected to hear from you: "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." This is a big deal for me as well. My students want to be engineers. My maternal grandfather and my father were the FTIC kids for their respective families, and followed engineering as a way up in life. My students generally share this background and goals, and I share this history with them as a way of reinforcing that their goals can become reality with hard work and study.

I think doing this matters a lot to them. OK, I know it does, because they have told me so.

Field Notes said...

My mom's a dental assistant who I rarely saw growing up. My dad, a locksmith, raised me. I worked hard to get where I am - the first college graduate in my family, and the first doctor. I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship and BIG loans to a top SLAC and tuition remission for grad school. I am still unemployed, I think because I did not receive mentoring that considered my background.

I hope I find my place in academia some day because I know I have much to offer students. But my spirit is so easily crushed these days. I had a colleague read my cover letter where I discuss my class background and how that helps me understand the challenges that students from working class backgrounds face in academia. All she had to say was that when this came up at her SLAC, many faculty hands shot up when asked how many were "first generation." I'm not as special as I think I am, she said.

Bionic-Woman said...

Dr. C: an interesting post, thanks. I'm your typical "first generation academic" - add to that the fact that I'm a South Asian woman and it usually gets interesting in a whole host of other ways. And, to be honest, I didn't realize that it was such a big deal (as in mattered to other people) until midway through my PhDing career. Like you, I have never had any qualms about telling people what my parents did. In fact, I'm really proud of and thankful for the sacrifices they made to educate me. I know I couldn't have done it without their support. What does turn me off, however, are your typical snooty "we've been in academia for generations" types. There's a certain "clique" mentality that these folks bring to the profession that has a lot more to do with posturing and less with substance that really really bothers me.