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.
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?