Delivered at Conference on Working Class Studies, Youngstown, Ohio (May 2005)
Working Class Academics
My reasons for attending this conference parallel my reasons for going to my 40th high school reunion. I have reached in point in my life when I seem to be taking stock. And one of the things I am trying to take stock of is my working class background. My father was a bricklayer, one of my brothers was a bricklayer, another brother was a post man who now sells tickets at the local swap meet, and my youngest brother (I am the oldest of four) drove a beer truck for 12 years before he went to work for what he calls a computer junkyard. The house in which I lived for my first twenty years in Ora, South Carolina, had no indoor toilet facilities.
Having gotten a PhD in 1980, I occupy the lowest possible rung on the academic ladder. I have been a teacher of writing at a research university for 25 years. I worked as a lecturer; I have not received tenure and I never will. I teach twice as much as the tenured faculty and receive about 3/5s of their salary taking 90,000 dollars per annum as the official average salary for faculty in the University of California. I am perhaps a classic example of having moved up to the bottom.
If one dips into such books as Strangers in Paradise, or This Fine Place so Far From Home, or Coming to Class, one will find writing by working class academics that suggest many are not happy people and some even appear, to use a technical term, a bit “screwed up.” I opened Coming to Class at random to find:
Working class academics struggle against assumptions about our qualifications, confront others who feel we have no right to be academics, and are consistently caught up in a battle to prove ourselves worthy, to show our loyalty, never letting our guard down for a minute.
This passage makes it appear, perhaps not inaccurately, that the working class academic is engaged, not such much in teaching or research, but war. This sense of one’s work does not make for happy people.
And sometimes something other than the immediate situation makes the working class academic unhappy. X reports a working class academic with tenure and five published books who nonetheless suffered constantly from the sense that she was a fake and phony and would eventually be revealed for what she was: a poor, uneducated, and unworthy working class girl. This female working class academic had proven herself in academia; she was a success. But still she felt like a phony. Some part of the war that the working class academic wages is not with the immediate social terrain of the university or college but within his or her self.
Something like this is what I mean by taking stock. I am here at this conference not so much to learn empirically about working class culture or to gather new facts as I am to experience myself as I interact with what I hear about working class culture, new facts, and the people presenting and listening. In a way, I am trying to find my self or locate the meaning of class for that self. I am now, in many ways, middle class. I live in a middle class neighbor; I know few working people. But as they say you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy. The same goes for having been working class.
The working class person tends to be in a state of psychological conflict again, not simply with the environment but with his or her past. The working class academic who publishes five books and still feels like a phony has a psychological problem as much as she has a social, political, or economic one. At the heart of the working class academics particular neurosis is the distance he or she has had to come to move into the middle class while doing so on the basis of attitudes, philosophy and a psychology formed in a working class environment.
I, for example, have never fully grasped the idea of a career. This idea apparently began to appear in the late 19th century with the rise of the professions that now make up the backbone of the middle class. William James had apparently a nervous breakdown deciding what exactly he wanted to go into. When I went to college as an English major, I had no idea at all what an English major was; I had no conception of the study of literature or the study of history or the study of philosophy as distinct professional disciplines. Since all of them involved reading I figured they were pretty much the same. Even when it came to getting my PhD people offered kindly advice, come on, Nick, you have got to decide if you are in history or literature or philosophy or psychology. I ended up consequently producing a fairly useless, from a career standpoint, dissertation.
Partly, I suppose I approached the dissertation not as avenue to career but as a way to get a job. I had failed to find work in community college and figured the PhD might open more doors. I wrote madly and out of fear for a year and a half. I got the PhD and a job and didn’t end up nowhere in the gutter as I had persistently feared. I no doubt looked at the PhD as affording a job possibility and not a career path because my father had a job not a career. Laying brick does not have great career potential; one moves up only in the sense that in laying brick one can get quite far off the ground. And while my mother especially believed in education my brothers and I felt that mostly our parents would be happy if we did not end up in jail or as sexual perverts.
While my background failed to provide an essential understanding of what I was getting into, it did provide me with a strong motivation. If one can contain it, fear is a great motivator; I finished my dissertation and some of my middle class colleagues didn’t. In later years too my working class background served me in what I feel to be positive ways. Like my working class academic, I have/had a strong paranoid streak; I set out to learn about the institution, its history and rules, in ways my middle class colleagues did not. After all, the place was a mystery to me. My paranoia along with my curiosity, led me immediately to join up with a union, the AFT, when I heard it wished to represent all lecturers in the UC system. I have been active in my local since 1986 and am now its President. This union has served to secure the position of lecturers in the system; those of us who have served more than 6 years and passed a review are referred to as continuing appointments. It’s not tenure, but our pay code ends like that of the senate faculty with a series of zeros (indicating indefinite).
Of course, from another perspective, joining a union and putting much of my “spare time” into it might be considered not such a hot career move. Some one told me lately that in the early stages of one’s career especially one should appear to be either on the move or poised to be on the move. The union strengthened the position of lecturer and upped the pay so I could afford to stay on; but to reap the rewards of that security I had to stay put. I did not move as one should in a career. Indeed, I am known by those who know me as an “institution.” As in, oh Nick, he is an institution around here. By staying as I have in one spot I seem to have become part of the buildings like some sort of particularly tenacious barnacle.
My time as a working class person in academia has produced many such good/bad paradoxes or ambiguities mostly having to do with work. I saw my father go off to work for eight hours a day for years on end. And that’s what I did for years; I put in my days. I was at the plant longer than any of my colleagues. In fact, I called it the plant; and saw my office with its computer, printer, and scanner as a little factory; where I churned out things, graded papers, memos, reports, syllabuses and eventually web pages. Constantly tired, I was nonetheless tireless. Because that was what work was supposed to be: tiring. Gradually though I observed that when some of my colleagues had all their classes say on three days in a week, they would not come in to the plant on the other two. I had—and still have a problem doing that–; it is as if when I am not working, I cease to exist, or more precisely if I am not working I don’t have a right to exist.
I didn’t know and it took me a while to grasp that one’s social level at the university was tied to how little time one was at the plant. At the lowest end were the staff who had to be there 40 hours a week, and at the highest end were professors who were hardly ever on campus because they were off teaching at some other place or were on sabbatical. By working as I did, I unconsciously aligned myself with the campus working class, and since I did not actually belong to that class appeared and sometimes felt like a drone or beast of burden. But approaching work in this way is not the academic middle class way to go about it. One’s work might involve a smidgen of creativity, and that does not work on the eight hour clock. As Bourdieu puts in another context, the working class person may acquire culture but he or she sweats under that culture in a way evident to those born to it. I worked in a way that made me appear to sweat to my more middle class colleagues who, with the proper insouciance, vacated the premises whenever humanly possible.
Working to prove you have a right to exist and are not some sort of unseemly parasite, like a tapeworm, sucking up the hard won nutrition of others is a working class thing. Middle class people seem to think that it’s enough simply to have earned a credential or degree of some kind. Of course, they have to work, but they do so, with that degree in hand, mostly on their own terms. They don’t appear to have a fear of falling into the gutter if they don’t make a show of working. This may explain why half of the lecturers on my campus, even though they are required by law to pay union dues, won’t officially join the union. An individual earns a degree and that degree gives the individual his or her bargaining power. A person with a degree should not have to join a union; to do so is to admit that the power the degree has is actually a social power (something granted by the group) and not earned by the individual with his or her talents and particular skills.
This is another thing I have failed adequately to understand: the idea of individual accomplishment and the status such accomplishment may confer. If I had been born middle class, I believe my relatives would have known what getting a PhD meant (in a realistic way) and would have considered it a big deal. By getting such a thing one had proven one’s self to be one of them. You had shown your relatives that they too were a success; they had raised and groomed you in such a way that you too could take your rightful place at the big table with the adults. That’s a big deal. When I got my PhD most of my family did know what to make of it. And my relatives back in the south saw it as part of my movement away from them and as a sign that I would probably look down on them more than I already did for their “backward” ways.
As Sennett and Cobb suggest somewhere in The Hidden Injuries of Class some working class persons are drawn to education not simply to make better money but because an education, by conferring middle class status, will actually make you a better person. A person better than the working class person—who suffers his or her fate and does not have the psychological and mental skills to make sense of what is happening. One of the persons Sennett and Cobb interviewed said something like: my family, my parents were like animals, too much under the control of their emotions; moving up means becoming more like a person and less like an animal.
This leads to another thing I cannot quite grasp (and which if I could would change in profound ways my sense of self). A working class person is not his or her job; that’s something he or she does for money to support the really important things: like family. But a middle class person is paid to be a certain kind of person. I have been in contact with another working class academic, and in an email to me she put this issue as clearly as I could:
The academic self is also different because our jobs are different. Unlike other folks who have jobs that are just what they do, our jobs are what we are. That’s the nature of academe. To give you an example, when I was interviewing adjunct instructors of composition last year for a paper, they referred to their tenured colleagues as “full-time people.” I thought this was an indication of how they really felt that they were only half-time people. Being an academic is to be a certain kind of person (not to have a certain kind of job…
I think that pretty much hits the nail on the head. Being working class means having a job. Being a middle class professional, perhaps especially in academia, means being a certain kind of person and being that kind of person “full-time.” Imagine that: a full-time person. As if everybody wasn’t a person full-time. But that’s not how I was raised. I just can’t grasp the idea of being paid or supported for being a certain kind of person. Why should some people be paid for being a certain kind of person; and other certain kinds of persons not.
My wife and I go around and around on this particular point. She says I am being paid for my expertise. I say I am being paid to be a certain kind of person and the degree or certificate doesn’t denote that I have expertise only that I am a certain kind of person who has been socialized in such and such a fashion. In other words, in my gut, I don’t grasp the idea of professions or expertise. Indeed, I think most of the expertise that the middle class accrues to itself is a sham. The whole educational ladder is nothing but an initiation rite. I deeply insulted the pre-med majors in one of my writing classes when I said that surgeons were nothing but glorified mechanics. I put up a picture of a gastric bypass and asked do you think it took a genius to design that, do you think it takes a genius to do that?
No, I said, just a certain kind of person. The kind of person who for whatever reason actually enjoys mucking about in somebody’s guts.
So maybe our successful female academic felt she would be exposed as a fraud because she had learned in the process of becoming a working class academic that becoming one really had nothing to do with one’s intelligence, or gifts, or willingness to work, or the knowledge one had acquired, or loyalty but with becoming a different kind of person from the uneducated working class child she had once been.