What is a “Working-Class Academic”?

Last week, a law professor from the UK was profiled by The Guardian.  In the article, Geraldine Van Bueren, the daughter of a taxi driver and bookkeeper, discusses the need for people like her to come out publicly.  She has formed a group to that end.  Confusedly, however, she has named that group the “Association of Working-Class Academics,” the same name that a group of us, mostly US-based, have been using since 2008.  When Van Bueren’s story hit the virtual newsstand, our AWCA Facebook page was inundated with new likes and comments thanking Van Bueren.  We quickly responded, linking to her piece in The Guardian, explaining the confusion, and welcoming the attention.  We also reached out to Van Bueren, who was quite gracious and apologetic.  The whole situation reminded us of the need for better coordination, organization, and cross-pollination.  It has also prompted me to share some of our history, explain the term “working-class academic,” and spend a little time sharing the strengths of those of us who so identify.

In 1984, two professors, Jake Ryan and Charles Sackrey, published Strangers in Paradise, whose subtitle, “Academics from the Working Class” pioneered WCA concept.  A nice review in The Insurgent Sociologist summarizes the importance of this volume.  For the first time, professors from poor and working-class backgrounds testified about the dislocating experience of moving between classes.  The book inspired many others to share their own stories, and several more collections of autobiographical writing followed, including Working-Class Women in the Academy by Michelle Tokarzyk and Elizabeth Fay (1993), This Fine Place So Far From Home by C.L. Barney Dews and Carline Leste Law (1995), Class Matters by Pat Mahony and Christine Zmroczek (1997), Reflections from the Wrong Side of the Tracks by Stephen Muzzatti and Vincent Samarco (2005), Resilience by Ken Oldfield and Gregory Johnson III (2008), and Trajectories by Jane Van Galen and Van O. Dempsey (2009).  This collective work has inspired generations of WCAs not only to tell our stories but to think more clearly and critically about class, class mobility, and the promises and perils of higher education in an unequal society.

I myself stumbled upon Strangers in Paradise while a graduate student in the early 00s.  This led me to an active listserv of “working-class/poverty-class academics” and, eventually, to the formation of the Association of Working-Class Academics in 2008.  A collective history of our attempts to organize WCAs can be found in The Journal of Working-Class StudiesIn 2015, AWCA formally merged with the Working-Class Studies Association, and we continue as a formal section within the larger organization.  Anyone interested in joining is encouraged to do so!

But you may be asking “what is a working-class academic?”  Why does it matter that some professors have working-class backgrounds?

You may be familiar with the exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, where Hemingway answers Fitzgerald’s claim that the very rich are different with a curt and devastating reply: “Yes, they have more money.”  Fitzgerald’s explanation makes clear that the difference isn’t just about money. The class you grow up in shapes your character and attitude. The very rich, he says,

possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in way that, unless you were born rich, it is difficult to understand.  They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves.  Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are.  They are different.

In a similar way, growing up poor also marks a person.  Although as the so-called smart kid in my neighborhood, I always felt a little different, my sense of alienation from school did not really begin until I went to college.  I was caught between two worlds, a stranger in paradise, and all those other clichés that are nevertheless quite accurate.  It was not until I found a group of people with similar experiences, the working-class academics, that I finally felt at home.

Growing up poor or working class and then becoming a tenured professor gives one a unique purchase on the world.  For one thing, we don’t know anyone.  We have no connections with academia or the professional world in general.  Anonymity has its privileges.  Because it took so much to get where we are, we tend to be brave (sometimes stupidly so), barging in where no one like us has gone before, often uninvited.  We are risk-takers, but this is made easier by the fact that we don’t know the rules of the game, so we don’t play by them.  We can color outside the lines, when necessary.  Not having any ancient prejudices or customs, we are not held back by them.  Related to our anonymity, our braveness, our outsider status, we can speak our mind.  And we do.  Often.

Working-class academics work hard.  Granted, so do many of our more advantaged colleagues, but we think of work differently. Working hard is meant to be difficult (physically demanding, rather than mentally engaging, as with middle-class work. And we don’t mind getting our hands dirty.  This is also about expectations.  Years of training and observation of our families’ lives have led us to expect discipline from the boss.  We can balk at this, and often do, but we are not surprised by dickishness from above.  I guess what I am saying is that we don’t hold entitled views.

Although we had to be pretty smart to get where we are now, we don’t attribute our success to it, because we know too many other smart people who are still working at the QuickMart or bussing tables or cleaning houses.  We know luck played a big part in where we ended up.  This, too, makes us feel less entitled than some of our peers, but it also allows us to see things from a more objective, less personal, perspective.  We hold nothing sacred.  We have a better purchase on reality than many of our peers.  All of this makes us deeply suspicious of abstractions that ignore context.  We want to know where people are coming from, especially when they say things about the state of the world or possibilities for the future.  We have a practical bent, preferring to say what we mean rather than hiding behind a label or polite obfuscation.  This also means we prefer to study and teach subjects that matter in the “real world,” often running away from those areas of academia that appear too theoretical, abstract, navel-gazing.

In all these ways, we are different from too many of our peers.  We are still operating in the margins of academia.  For now, many individuals still stumble upon the WCA concept, as Geraldine Van Bueren has done.  I cannot count how many times I been at a conference (sociology, education, labor) where a WCA in the audience “comes out” during Q&A.  Most of the time, this is treated as a one of a kind experience – never shared before, never spoken of since.  It should not be.  We are here.  Please find us! To paraphrase John Lennon, A working class [academic] is something to be.”

Allison L. Hurst, Oregon State University

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1 Response to What is a “Working-Class Academic”?

  1. Karla Forgaard-Pullen says:

    I’m almost finished a lengthy career as a health care professional. I too come from working class origins (farmers, miners). In every moment of education I found my life experiences to be more relevant to my goals. In my work life, I have been shut out of many a clique. Annoying at the time, I came to see these events as saving me from utter nonsense. There are more reasons than my working class origins for these challenges, (intersectionalities galore) but it is because of my culture that I survived intact.

    Like

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