Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Negotiating Class Identity in the Academy

I've been thinking a lot about these two recent posts by Oso Raro, in which he discusses his experiences as an academic with a working-class background in the context of his experiences this year participating in
"a teaching seminar on working class students in the academy that focused both on theoretical applications of socio-economic class in the academy as well as practical retention tools directed towards working class students."
I thoroughly recommend that you hightail it over to Slaves of Academe and check out both posts (and the brilliant blog as a whole, if you're not familiar with it), for my response here won't be in any way exhaustive.

In his first post, Oso Raro meditates on two things that struck him most powerfully during his participation in the seminar, and the relationship between the two:
"firstly my own passionate investment in what all these questions mean, and secondly the institutional contrasts between Lil’ Prestigious College and Cold City U. that are sustained by class difference."
In the second post, he talks more personally about how class inflects his own identity as an academic, ultimately concluding and asking the following:
"But where does the working class academic fit into the schema above? Do we bridge the gulf between analytical standpoints, or do we leave one for the other? Many academics either play at classlessness, or offer apologetic mea culpas to their classed condition, both of which are rather annoying. I, for one, am not classless. I am a middle-class person from a working class background, who mastered the art of mimesis in pursuit of what I thought was important, driven out of the natal home by gayness. And for as much as I could appreciate the elegance of the graphing, the humanistic and communal values associated with working class people, I know, at least from my patch, that there was also a lot of human misery, which of course is why working class people pursue university degrees in the first place, chasing an escape, drinking the Kool-aid their middle- and upper class peers imbibed long ago, like mother’s milk.

Where we get stuck is in thinking that class, like other social conditions, is inescapable, that accomplishment means nothing, that we are always raced, gendered, sexualized, or classed in ways that are biological or natal rather than social, and therefore malleable. Or alternatively, that our accomplishment taints us, and we seek to recover the original house of love and familial warmth. For working class academics, the struggle is in keeping it real, and by that I don’t mean being street, I mean recognizing that we are compromised agents of hegemony, we have drunk the Kool-aid, but still might have something to offer our working class students besides punition and antagonism. The question becomes: is the very task of teaching someone to think, not the beautiful gilded lilies of places like PLC but the working mothers and foremen and the eager new Americans in classrooms at places like Cold City U., therefore an act of class betrayal in and of itself, if the thinking is grounded in class inequality? What are we teaching and how?"
I have a hard time knowing exactly where to begin in responding to these two posts, but I knew from the moment when I read the first one that I really wanted to do so on the blog. I've written about class at various points on this blog, but I've done so nowhere near as elegantly as Oso Raro does in the two posts to which I link. When I talk about these things, I tend to come at them personally - either talking about my own background or talking about my relationship with my students. Sure, one can extrapolate to bigger picture claims from those posts, I hope, but I don't typically do the work of connecting those broader dots in a systematic way, and I think Oso Raro's posts affected me so powerfully precisely because both posts do that work that I'm typically too lazy to do.

For me, I suppose the conflict that I experience in connecting my personal experience to a more general discourse on working-classness in higher education is in part a feeling that I don't want to "academize" (yes, I just made up that word) this part of who I am, or this part of who my students are. There is something about the language of "valuing" working-class culture or approaches to education/learning that always strikes me as posing the danger of keeping the unwashed masses in their place and of painting all people who would fall under the broader heading of "working class" with the same brush - there is one working class culture, one set of working-class values, and if your experience doesn't match that unified ideal, then somehow you're not "really" working class. Or, conversely, if your experience does match that, you're then obligated to promote those values and embrace that identity for once and for all and forever, and if you don't, then you are a "traitor" to your class of origin.

Perhaps I respond this way at least in part because such attitudes about class remind me of George Orwell's treatment of class in The Road to Wigan Pier or D.H. Lawrence's treatment of class in his portrayal of a character like Walter Morell in Sons and Lovers. Even in a book like Limbo, which talks about class mobility or straddling in contemporary American culture, I often feel as if what it means to be "working class" is defined through a kind of nostalgia for "real" identity that is not compromised by bourgeois values, and that this nostalgia has a whole heck of a lot to do with "real" identity as defined through what it means to be a "real" man. So part of my resistance has to do with the way that working-class-ness can be gendered masculine, and with the way that it can be evoked as a kind of prelapserian ideal, that which proves there is an outside of consumer culture, bourgeois morality/politics, radical individualism, etc. I'm not interested in claiming my working-class background in that context. That's not to say that I'm not interested in claiming my working-class background, but I often don't like the terms that appear to be most widely available.

And when I talk with academics who come from backgrounds that are very, very similar, if not identical, to mine, I notice quite often that one thing that we agree on is a real ambivalence about how we understand class identity in this profession. Whatever our gender, sexual, or racial identities, we seem to have a similar experience that the terms available for understanding our class experience don't quite fit, or don't quite fit all the time. And I often have the sense that we all feel like we'll never come to terms with our class identity in the way that we might have come to terms with the other aspects of our identities, in part because while we inhabit a class identity, it is not fixed in the way that those other aspects of our identities are. I can't stop being a woman (or, well, I could, but it would require thousands of dollars, hormones and surgery, or at the very least a total reorganization of how I think about my self), but I have stopped being working-class. On the one hand, as Oso Raro notes,
"For the working class academic, or those academicians that emerge from the purported lower orders, our achievements are always under scrutiny, always questioned, constantly re-thought."
On the other, we face the difficult task of
"attempting to honor working class ways of learning while simultaneously trying not to undermine my own (and others) success in the system through assimilation of those middle- and upper class mores."
In other words, we have left our working-class identities behind for all material and social intents and purposes. We are solidly middle class, in terms of the profession in which we work, in terms of the money we make, in terms of the food we eat, the social activities we enjoy, and the politics that we espouse. We are solidly middle-class in that, for the most part, we have left our hometowns and live far-ish from our families of origin - not at all a working class thing to do. On the other hand, however, our newly acquired middle-class-ness implicates us in a system that continues to marginalize us. We've "made it," and we can never go home again (just as Lawrence's upwardly mobile Oliver Mellors and Paul Morell can't), but at the same time we still identify ourselves through that past identity and the experiences that shaped us in that past form.

This is what I think Oso Raro was talking about when he talks about "class-based assumptions" that drive "how we learn to become who we are in the university" and how the "drive toward holistic educational models [. . .] belies our own class-based assumptions about success and working class potential, as well as leaves largely unexamined and uninterrogated the presumptions of class and intellectual promise that speak more to our own self-conceptions of worth and experience than anything our students may actually be capable of." A commenter asked him to explain this more fully, because when he posted about these "class-based assumptions" he did so as a kind of short-hand that went without saying. How I read this, before I'd read the comment, was that as academics who come from working-class backgrounds, we have a set of class-based assumptions (that come from both the class affiliation of our upbringing as well as the class affiliation that we have acquired) that influence our ideas about how to educate our students, particularly if we're educating students with backgrounds similar to our own. In other words, we come to the party with a set of assumptions based upon where we come from and where we've gotten to that on the one hand seeks to validate experiences that in our own quest for success were not necessarily validated, while at the same time we also believe in the system and we have acculturated ourselves into that system (even as we realize the constructedness of it), which means that a competing set of middle-class values are ultimately working in concert with our working-class values of origin. We stand in between the two value systems, and so our ideas about how to change education reflect that ambivalence.

I think it's important, for those of us who've traveled from one class into another, to acknowledge that we, too, have assumptions based on that subject position that are traceable back to issues of class. We're no "purer" in our relationship to class just because we don't come from middle- or upper-class backgrounds. Moreover, our students don't stand in some "pure" relation to class, and, whatever strategies we invent and deploy to increase retention and improve the education of these "non-student students" (as Oso Raro termed them), (I believe that) they are going to need skills to navigate a middle-class world, to which they will ideally gain access by virtue of education, that won't necessarily validate their working-class experiences or values.

At the end of the day, I don't think that I'm a class traitor by showing my students (or trying to show them) how to navigate middle-class-ness. I don't think that it's "wrong" to give them a language for that social world, and to highlight that it is a different language. I'd argue that by highlighting the fact that this is a different language (most often from real-life examples, that usually take the form of conversations I recount between me and my mom), I do them a service, and I also do a service to those solidly middle-class students whom I teach - those "student students" - in that I show them that this language isn't "normal" - not for those who come from less privileged backgrounds than theirs.*** The issue is not to make the middle-class students (the straight students, the white males) feel guilty for their subject positions.**** Nor is the issue to make working class students, or gay students, students of color, or women, feel that they are universally marginalized and downtrodden. What is important to me is to show all of my students, regardless of their individual subject positions, the ways in which those individual subject positions are socially and culturally constructed, and, moreover, to indicate that worthwhile ideals can be mined from multiple value systems. The point isn't to create a "new normal" or an "alternate normal" for those students who come from less privilege or for those students who come from more privilege. The point is to show all of them that "normal" is itself a construct. It's also to show them that some things bear "cultural capital" while others don't, and for us to think about why things are valued in the way that they are.

I have a hard time believing that by turning to more holistic methods to respond to working-class students' cultural and social values that this will eliminate the privilege of the middle class. Perhaps I'm unimaginative. But I do have a hard time believing that. I also have a hard time believing that such methods are wholly positive, as I really do believe that the point of education - for all students, regardless of class background - is transformation, and so by tailoring education to one or the other half of the binary, to me, seems shortsighted. I'm much more interested in the interventions that are possible between those binary oppositions. I'm much more interested in facilitating the transformation of all of my students - both working class and non-working class. I want to use my experience, as a person who is, ultimately, in-between, to show them that an in-between is possible. That skepticism and ambivalence are possible, even as one inhabits a particular identity, wherever one originates. That's good (I think) for working class and middle class students alike.

What we are teaching I think is what they need to move forward after college. It's not about preserving some sort of canon or some "what every educated (middle-class) person needs to know" but rather about what will serve them as they move forward in their lives. As for how? Well, whatever we teach, I think the "how" of it is about serving the mission of what they need as they go forward. Teaching students to think in ways that are socially and materially rewarded isn't a betrayal. What is a betrayal is failing to note to them the how and the why for those things being rewarded in mainstream (middle-class) culture. A college degree isn't ultimately (just) about the piece of paper. It's about teaching the students about what that piece of paper means and why it means it.

***The best example of this that I can think of is that for some of my classes I will make them breakfast for the last class. I always ask whether there are any vegetarians, in preparing for what I shall make. When I've got a solidly working-class class, they look at me like I'm insane. When I've got a class that is more socially mixed, they'll either respond as if such a request is "normal" and even sometimes somebody will confess to being veggie. Whatever the case, I always add some commentary about the class implications of the question and their answers. This is a teaching moment, even though it's not in my field.

****Actually, I had a student in the summer session who balked at my use of the word "privilege" in the first or second class, precisely because (I think) he thought I was trying to do this to him. As I explained to him, I don't think that we have to feel guilty for privilege. I do, however, think that we have acknowledge it. Thus, I've got privilege because I'm white and a college professor - he has privilege because he's white and has a good job and is a man, whatever. The point isn't guilt. It's the acknowledgment that "privilege" means that we have opportunities that other people don't have, and that we should have to account for that - not necessarily apologize for it - as we think about our relationship to the world. That's not, to my mind, about being liberal or conservative or guilty, but rather about being a person who is thoughtful and empathetic and ethical.


Susan said...

Thanks for this. My sense is that the other important thing about people from working class backgrounds is that they understand that class exists -- as bell hooks says, there are things you see from the margins.

I love your bit about not feeling guilty about privilege, but acknowledging it. I'd just add to that, deciding how you want to use it -- just to make sure you stay at the top of the heap, or to help others join you.

Doctor Pion said...


One of the remarks in the original articles (part two, "riddle") stuck with me: "One of the things that was fascinating to me was the extent to which seminar participants did not want to engage with class, but rather were distracted or drifted off into discussions of race or gender." I think we often confuse the two in our college's discussion of "diversity". Poor white students face greater challenges than black students from an upper class background, even ones who are refugees from a place like Darfur.

That was still in my head when I was reading an article about Rev. Wright in the April 7 New Yorker. There is a discussion about class within his church on pg 34, with a reference to the parishioners having to negotiate "the crosshatched lines of race and class" and an earlier block quote from Obama's book about how the church crossed class lines. The role of class in problems that are often viewed as 'racial' gives me something to think about.

Related, but separate topic:

An article in the NY Times about "class" in US society came with some
really interesting interactive graphics.
The first one lets you rank yourself, the second tab looks at class, education, and professions, while the third one is particularly relevant here: mobility. The role of education is dramatic, particularly the "some college" effect.