Thursday, January 10, 2013

What is your academic (class) identity?

Get a comfy seat, I'm posting a thought piece.  I've been thinking about the project of identity construction in which academics engage.  Class is no small matter for anyone in American society, even if we like to pretend otherwise.  I'm starting to wonder if we academics don't repeat in microcosm the general American tendency to misinterpret our own class status — that is, not just in general society, but within academic society.

For decades, it was a truism that many, if not most Americans preferred to identify themselves as middle class, no matter how they looked to outside observers.  I have a suspicion that this tendency might fade a bit in the next few years, now that the U.S. economy seems to be contracting on a more sustained level and the differences between haves and have-nots become much starker to people who hadn't noticed such stuff before.  But anyway, my point is that academics of my acquaintance often mirror this historical tendency by thinking of themselves as just getting by in the system, when in fact they're doing much better than a great many of their colleagues elsewhere.  (Just take a look at the, uh, exchanges that break out between tenure-track and adjunct faculty all over the academic corner of the internet.)

All of the foregoing is just to frame my thinking.  What really captures my attention is that this tendency seems to start way before we land our first jobs.  I recall a lot of this identity construction underway back in grad school.

In stereotypical fashion, I was an upper-middle-class college student who thought I was merely middle-class.  Alma Mater U., much like the high school I had attended, did relatively little to challenge this self-perception, since a fair number of my peers came from flat-out wealthy families next to which I really did look petit-bourgeois.  Sure, I knew people from truly poor families on full-ride scholarships, but that only bolstered the idea that I was in the middle stratum. My awakening as to where my family was positioned on the national scale – as opposed to the rarefied world of my hometown – took some time.  But after a few years, it started to sink in that I had a lot more class-inflected advantages growing up than most people could claim.  The mere fact that I had been only vaguely aware of what AMU cost my family per year suddenly meant something to me one day, after years of it meaning nothing to my conscious mind. 

And then I went to grad school at Dear Old University, a huge comprehensive state school.  There, I began to understand on a deeper level that I was not only privileged growing up, but that some of my new peers wouldn't even see a meaningful distinction between me and those rolling-in-dough rich kids from college.  (Even though I certainly did.)  It hit me that, judged by my friends who had graduated from various state universities or more obscure liberal arts colleges, or who had had to pay their own arduous way through their college educations, the fact that I had gone to AMU meant that I could not possibly call myself middle-class with a straight face.  It must have sounded to them like the Eddie Izzard bit where some fabulously wealthy aristocrat modestly acknowledges, "I'm...comfortable."

But here's the curve ball: as I moved through my graduate training at DOU, my self-perception altered downward.  I was clearly not living the rich and easy lifestyle, and after a few years, I became one of those grad students who chafes to open his undergrad alumni magazine and read about his former classmates graduating from medical school or selling a hedge fund for Croesus' fortune.  I was keenly aware that I didn't have money, and that I was training in a field that would not make me rich.   (Not by American standards, at least.  Globally, we're all the 1%, yadda yadda.)

Plus, I was comparing myself to my colleagues at Ivy League graduate programs who seemed to enjoy access to unlimited funding and a great deal of mentoring.  DOU guaranteed me a few years of funding, but not a full ride by any means.  Since most of that funding was in the form of TAships, we were encouraged to put them off as long as possible by winning external funding.  I got accustomed to writing grant proposals to support myself as a matter of course.  I began to feel – go right ahead and laugh if you want, since it is laughable – like DOU was the mean streets of some impoverished urban neighborhood, and the Ivies were the graceful suburbs of affluence.  In other words, I started to fantasize that I was a working-class academic.  I told myself that the blessing in disguise of being at a school with limited funding was that I was forced to become proficient and prolific at grant-writing.  (Understand that I'm blushing slightly as I write these lines.)  I told myself that I would come out of this a better academic worker than my Ivy League colleagues who – as I imagined to be the case – were simply handed opportunities on a silver platter in grad school and consequently were unaccustomed to churning out grant proposals to be read by unfriendly eyes.  I told myself that DOU would make me tougher and more of a survivor than the 'rich kids' at Harvard and Yale.

This risible fantasy actually served a purpose: it kept me from despair when I was toiling on my grant proposals, and later on my dissertation.  It provided a bit of comfort during some hard times.  It also reminded me that I needed to treat academia as the dog-eat-dog world it really is, and that I would have to be both aggressive and tenacious about seeking out a living.  I daresay I underestimated how much every academic needs to do this, but it's hard to see past your own nose when you're absorbed in the lonely, isolating work of diss writing, and living as cheaply as you [believe you] can manage because your funding has fallen through.

But now, just a few years later, I look back at this self-identification stunt and shake my head.  Just as I was oblivious to my class position in college, I was oblivious to how good I had it at DOU even at the worst of times.  Let me list the ways:
  • I entered graduate school without any student loan debt from college.  'Nuff said.
  • DOU is hardly podunk: it's a good – one might even say great – state school with more money than most of its peers, and, the gripes of my professors and classmates aside, it truly is an R1 institution with some world-class researchers and facilities.  (Oh, to access that library again!)  My colleagues and I were deeply privileged to study with those people, in those places, with that stuff.
  • I never felt exiled to the edge of civilization, like so many do at, say, Compass Directional State University.  DOU-Town was really a fabulous place to live, even (or especially) for twentysomethings with limited budgets for entertainment.  It was not a harsh existence.
  • I managed to eke my way through nearly a decade of graduate study with only a modest amount of student loan debt.  Sure, I'll be paying it off for twenty years, but I don't fear that monthly automatic deduction the way some people do.
  • I hardly ever consented to share a dwelling space with a roommate, because I value my privacy, and I was able to find spaces cheap enough that I could foot the rent bill myself.  Granted, that last apartment in DOU-Town was a cockroach-ridden shithole, but still.
  • I never had to take up a full-time job that jeopardized my ability to move through my program.  
  • I never suffered from a catastrophic illness that forced me to take off years at a time to recover.  
  • I was never responsible for the welfare of a spouse, or children, or infirm relatives.
In totality, it looks like I was beginning to associate sustained hard work and frugality with impoverishment, rather than what they are: commonplaces of most people's lives.  I was playing misery poker as misery solitaire.

I'm trying to keep all of this in mind so that I can properly appreciate the tub of butter I've fallen into at Cute-as-a-Button University.  And, perhaps, so I don't take it too seriously when my (tenured!) colleagues here start to complain about their overworked, under-appreciated lot in life.

So, tell me, friends: what is your academic class identity?  How did (does) your graduate training affect your self-image as a classed body?  How does that image stack up against the wider world of higher education?  How hard did you laugh at this post, based on your own experiences?


  1. This is a great post and a great question. I think you're really on to something in suggesting that academics, generally, read themselves downward when it comes to class.

    Part of this is about being, or seeming, stalled out compared to one's peers. Obviously, this perception depends on having come from a certain class level to begin with--but if most of your peers are college-educated, after a few years they start pulling way ahead of you. I remember reflecting on the fact that, when we were 28 or so, my former college roommate--who truly came from nothing, having grown up in a trailer as the child of a single mother in rural Maine--had managed, on a modest salary, to acquire a house and a fancy car and a couple of dogs when the only thing I owned that was worth more than $200 was my shitty failing laptop.

    But I also think that, as Americans, we're invested in pretending we're all at the same financial level. It's seriously only been in the past few years that I finally realized that many of my grad school peers must have been getting financial support from their parents: we all complained about having no money, but I was one of the few people I knew who worked part-time, and I didn't have a car, and I paid bupkis for rent. And somehow I was always scrambling. I just assumed I must be REALLY bad with money, since my friends paid more in rent than I did, and didn't have jobs, and had to keep up the insurance on their cars. Uh, no.

    But anyway, my story: I went to a fancy school three times over, and though I have ridiculous student loan debt and came from a frugal, deferred-gratification kind of family, people tend to read me as coming from money.

    Weirdly, my parents, now, do have some money: they inherited two modest estates when my grandparents died, and the home my parents themselves owned for 40 years sold for a ridiculous amount when they moved a couple of years ago (turns out, a Seattle suburb was the right place to buy in the 1970s). Their lifestyle now is totally unlike what I grew up with, and though I certainly benefit. . . it's a little alienating, and sometimes gives me the impression that I'm downwardly mobile (forgetting how hard they had it in their own early years, and how good I myself have it).

    But I think that I need to accept that at this point--in my late thirties, owning a home, having a PhD and tenure and a bunch of fancy degrees--I'm fucking ruling class. I look it, people think it about me, and I'd rather accept it, if that means recognizing my very real advantages and being cognizant of what I owe and need to give back to the community I live in. At any rate, I hope I never again whinge about how hard I had it and how relatively little I still make all things considered.

  2. Holy shit. I wrote a damn novel there. Apologies.

  3. I have a meeting in a few minutes, so I'm going to try to be brief.

    I think you know that I feel like I'm in a liminal space with class right now. I grew up lower-middle class, but now, financially, I qualify as slightly upperish-middle class, or at least on the higher end of middle class. I'm not comfortable with that, really, because it still feels like we are just surviving in a a lot of ways. I'm hoping that evens out at some point, now that we have some stability in housing, cars, etc.

    As far as my job goes, though... I'm at a very no-name school where research is forgotten about frequently and people are teaching the same things they've taught for 25+ years. If my university were a "class" of any kind, it would be lower-middle class, which maybe is the reason it felt natural to take a job here. It aspires to be more, but it isn't. Won't be for a while, probably.

    Could some of this have to do with student loan debt -- like how much debt you have is in proportion to where you feel in the academic pecking order? I know that my debt holds me down in more than just financial ways. It's a sack of bricks I carry on my shoulder at all times.

    This may be to be continued, since my meeting starts in just a few minutes...

  4. I went to a fancy-pants public boarding school for high school, was a scholarship student at a top SLAC, went to a top grad school fully funded, and settled at a flagship R1. #2 went to the same boarding school, a flagship R1, another flagship R1 and has settled down at a regional university with a good football team.

    We made sacrifices to limit and to pay off debt a long time ago.

    My parents also made a ton of sacrifices. All extra money went towards educational opportunities and college saving. Seriously, no VHS, microwave (they finally got one when prices dropped to $50), clothes dryer, dishwasher, climate control, etc. And it worked. My sister and I both got kicked into the upper middle class and I never ever want to go back.

  5. California public schools, back when they were good and progressive; all degrees UC Berkeley, back when it was cheap; my aunt gave me enough college money so as to eke by without working during the year, graduate school paid for 100% by TAships.

    I thought this was typical and middle class at the time, some had easier lives and some harder but very many were like me. It was not difficult to be like me then, as I say, because school was so much cheaper and for those whose families had less, financial aid was so much more generous.

    I did not realize I was getting an exceptionally good education, thought it was only good enough (I was satisfied but did not realize there were few places where I would have been so satisfied) and also that I was really good. That is because of family issues but also because so many were so good.

  6. ...I meant to say: all of this actually made me downwardly mobile! Had I known I could aspire to more, I would have. But I was raised to think of myself as just hanging onto the last rungs of the lower middle class, both class wise and academically, and so that is what I am doing now.

  7. I grew up solidly working class. Neither of my parents went to college (and many in my extended family have not graduated from high school), and my stepfather, who also did not go to college, is an immigrant. It was a fight to get my mother to believe that college - even at a mediocre state university - was a possibility for me. (Thank goodness I had great support through my high school to aid in the convincing, and that I'd found my way to the "gifted" track, and that I had academically oriented extra-curricular activities.) Had I come from a different kind of class background, I would have applied to more than two universities, and I would have applied to better universities with a decent chance of getting in. But because of my background, it was just astonishing that I went away to school at all.

    The fact that I progressed to a decently ranked MA program had everything to do with the fact that I was in the honors program at my mediocre regional university, widely known as "Can't read, Can't write? --- State." The fact that I then progressed to a PhD program at a highly respected private university had everything to do with the fact that I had a good MA program as a bridge.

    Given my background, I'm pretty clear about the fact that I am solidly middle class - even upper-middle-class by a lot of people's standards, even if my paycheck doesn't necessarily reflect that position. And this even though I've ended up a tenured professor at a mediocre state university that is widely known as "No Knowledge University."

    Now, it is true that I learned a lot about my class position, particularly in my PhD program, when for the first time I associated with people who "really" had money. I can now make distinctions between people who are "wealthy" (who get allowances from their parents, whose parents take care of the 20% down payment on a first house - if not just buy the thing outright for them, who even in graduate school went on "vacations" or who went to their family's "summer home" in order to write), people who are comfortable (no or little undergraduate debt, never having to "worry" about money really, but also having to work in addition to going to school), and people who are more on the margins money-wise (me).

    But at the same time, because of where I come from, I haven't felt that I'm downwardly mobile or that my class position has been compromised by choosing an academic career path, even given the institution at which I've ended up. Some of this is luck: I luckily got my job offer while I was ABD and so never had to put time in adjuncting or VAPing, I luckily live in a region in which my salary totally supports a middle-class lifestyle.

    Some of it, though, is cultural. The book *Limbo* articulates these differences quite well. From the music that I listen to and the movies I watch, to the fact that I have and go to "dinner parties," to what I drink at those parties (cocktails and wine as opposed to shots and bud light - indeed, graduate school taught me to love gin, whiskey, and wine), to a million other little things that have nothing to do with the way that I was brought up or to the way that many people I know still live and spend their time. At the end of the day, I'm doing about as well or better than most of the people I grew up with. And I love my job (most of the time), which seems like a pretty good deal, even if I'm overworked and underpaid by some people's standards.

  8. Though my parents were still struggling when I, their firstborn, came along, I definitely came of age in an upper- to upper-upper middle class home. I don't know where the much-ballyhooed 1% starts; my folks were definitely in the top 5%. But I'm not sure I was aware of it then: westerners, especially more rurally-situated westerners, wear their affluence differently than do city folk. In fact, when I was surrounded by east coast urban/suburban kids of my approximate financial class in one of my graduate programs, I felt deeply uncomfortable in a class way, but I felt it not as a function of tax brackets but rather of style, the almost physical language of upper or upper-middle privilege that abuts the urban working class in geographic proximities that I don't even understand in my neck of the woods.

    So: local public schools in my youth. Went to fancy private SLAC for about 2 weeks but realized its cultural climate wasn't for me (see above) and quickly matriculated at flagship homestate public R1, on full scholarship plus generous stipend. MA at upper-echelon private R1, again on fellowship/ TAship, again a fish out of water among what should have been my own class group. Returned happily to big public R1 for MFA at well-regarded program, again on fellowship/TAship. PhD at different top-ranked public R1, on fellowship/TAship. Ended education with no debt, enough money in the bank to put a down payment on a house in a nice neighborhood, and all this not formally because my parents had footed the bill, but rather because of good funding.

    Except. I lived pretty well during those education years, and lived on my own. Some indifferent summer jobs here and there. Ate at decent restaurants, shopped at farmer's markets. Was flown home to visit family with some regularity. Was given a car by parents. So the advantageous position I was in when I left my PhD program was TOTALLY because of my parents' support, though in more "soft money" ways. I was certainly aware of it then, and I'm more aware of it now, since many of my colleagues, and both of my spouses (ex and current), are still diffing their way out of massive student loan debt. That's pretty much the most significant marker of privilege I can think of in academic circles, where many of the distinctions we may have grown up with have been replaced by our common cultural position. I don't take it lightly, and I rarely mention it when the topic arises because I fear provoking what is finally a version of class resentment among my professional peers.

    In my current job, I am downwardly mobile, income-wise, relative to my folks, but I don't kid myself for a minute that I'm not profoundly privileged.

    Long. Sorry.

  9. I love that just about everyone put in some serious verbiage, and at least half of you apologized for it. No apologies needed, all!

    It's been fascinating reading these narratives. It isn't often that I get to stimulate that much reflection here.

  10. I've been waiting until I got back to post. This really hits home for me for a lot of reasons. I was born into a solidly middle class family, but we ended up in financial ruin for reasons I won't share here. Even though I was a stunning overachiever in high school, the question of even attending college was not settled a mere two months before I finished high school. I was accepted at great schools, but ended up attending my state flagship because it was all I could afford (and even that was with loans). My parents basically cut me loose to subsist on my own, so I needed loans in addition to scholarships to eat and live.

    I worked as many as two jobs while I was in college. My last year, I worked a full-time and a part-time job while finishing my degree and taking a grad class. I always had to work in order to make ends meet, and the ends often didn't meet despite my best efforts. When I got to grad school, things were slightly better. I made a decent stipend, and I was living with my then-boyfriend (now spouse). However, when my dad's insurance coverage was set to run out, I had to get a full-time job. I also took out a small amount of loans to help get by with car payments, maintenance, and health-related expenses (there were many in those days).

    I almost always had some kind of live-in partner or a roommate. My parents are not able to help me out now, and they were unwilling to when they could. They had their own concerns, so I don't begrudge them. I didn't go to a fantastic school (decent, but not held in high regard nationwide), I lived in kind of a shitty town, and I was almost always broke. My health was bad for a long time, so that was also a bit of a downer.

    Now I'm living as a contingent faculty member at a good school in a terrible location with an unhappily unemployed spouse. We are doing OK, but a few unfortunate events could put us in a pickle. There is an emergency fund, of course, but we've seen that those far-fetched worse-case scenarios often become reality (at least for us). We are holding on to the middle class as best we can for now. Our dream is to have real jobs in the same place, as that has never happened in the 8 years we have been together. It's getting old.