(Thanks to the linky goodness provided by Virago, without which this post would not have been possible 🙂 )
One of the things that often strikes me about conversations about class identity in the academy is how inflected those conversations are by ideals about masculinity. It’s as if the decades of work that feminists have done on class don’t exist, and the minute that the conversation turns to class, we enter a world of scholarship boys vs. the privileged “old boy network,” plumbers vs. intellectuals, out-of-work manual laborers vs. bread-winners, revolutionaries vs. “company men.” The complexities of class identity (the ways in which it is inflected by region, gender, race, sexuality) are elided, and instead we get this narrative straight out of Richard Hoggart’s postwar Britain.*
I have to say, I find this profoundly alienating and distressing. And that shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody, as, I mean, it’s not like I’m saying anything new in noting the tendency for women to be excluded from the conversation once class is put on the table. I find myself thinking of Monique Wittig’s critique of Marxism in “One Is Not Born a Woman”: “This means that for the Marxists women belong either to the bourgeois class or to the proletariat class, in other words, to the men of these classes. In addition, Marxist theory does not allow women any more than other classes of oppressed people to constitute themselves as historical subjects, because Marxism does not take into account the fact that a class also consists of individuals one by one. Class consciousness is not enough. We must try to understand philosophically (politically) these concepts of ‘subject’ and ‘class consciousness’ and how they work in relation to our history.”** So while I claim working-class origins (neither of my parents went to college; my father worked as a steel worker, spent much of my childhood laid off in the era of Reaganomics, and then moved on to work as a facilities manager in a mall; my mother worked in a series of clerical positions only getting training and licensed as an insurance agent after I’d graduated from college; my stepfather is an immigrant without a college education who has worked as a parking lot attendant and then after I was 18 worked in a couple of family businesses; I lived until I was 13 in a neighborhood with wild dogs and gangs), my experience of negotiating class is profoundly influenced by factors, like gender, that don’t seem to influence the conversation when we talk about “the working-class professoriate.”
So, for example, as a woman with working-class origins, I didn’t experience the class ressentiment that Karl Steel describes, in spite of the fact that I suspect, with our seemingly identical trajectories, I experienced similar challenges based on class origins. Let me explain: I had a very steep learning curve when it came to academic culture based on my class origins, my Ph.D. program was populated primarily (though I can think of a couple of exceptions) by people who went to elite undergraduate institutions and/or had parents who were academics, and because of my undergraduate education at a mediocre regional four-year state university, I had a lot of catching up to do in terms of my intellectual work. So why didn’t that translate into me insisting as an identity as an outsider or interloper? As somehow “special” or “unique” because of my class origins? And why doesn’t recognizing that I am no longer working-class fail to cause me anxiety that “a) this profession may just not be as plum a gig as I used to think it was, and the fancy-from-birth types are off doing something fabulous and/or cruel elsewhere; b) I don’t have the faintest clue as to what I’m talking about, because I’m not a sociologist.”
I think my gender as it influences my relationship to my class accounts, at least partly, for my lack of anxiety.*** I’m going to try to break this down as clearly as I can, but I feel like these are some difficult things to untangle.
First, to return to what Wittig says about women as belonging to the men of particular social classes. I think that one conventional way that a woman is judged positively on the basis of her performance of the feminine gender role is through her ability to ascend in class through marriage. There is something to the old-fashioned idea that women go to college to get an M.R.S. degree. In other words, for a woman, I think that there is a sense that one can “trade up” in class and that this confirms, rather than challenges, her identity in terms of her gender. With this being the case, one of the traits of successful femininity is “passing” – through appearance, through ways of speaking, through various expressions of taste (the music that one listens to, the television shows that one watches, etc.). In very significant ways, traditional femininity is about eliding one’s origins to fit into new (patriarchal) contexts. Now, it’s important to note here that ascending in class status outside of affiliation with a man is not the traditional feminine path – it’s a feminist one. However, I do think that traditional femininity allows for a certain comfort with this sort of passing, and so rather than clinging to one’s class of origin and insisting on that identity, my experience in graduate school was about passing out of that identity. (This was not without attendant internal conflict, but I did not experience it as a conflict between “authentic” working-class-ness and “pretended” working-class-ness. It was more akin to worrying if one was “doing it right,” much in the way that one might worry if one is wearing skinny jeans the “right” way.)
Second, I don’t think that I ever saw graduate school, or pursuing an academic career, as pursing a “plum gig” that somehow served as an explanation for my defection from my working-class origins, or as an explanation for not pursuing full-time work after the B.A. Following the last paragraph, I didn’t actually think that I needed such an explanation because there isn’t the same conflict between the “feminized” professoriate and traditional femininity as there is between the “feminized” professoriate and traditional masculinity. Femininity doesn’t include same expectations of bread-winning, providing, and work upon which traditional masculinity insists, and further, with femininity doesn’t demand individual professional “success” as a result of education. (Just look at the number of women with Ph.D.s who end up as trailing spouses, or the number of women with various sorts of advanced degrees who opt out of the paid workforce in order to attend to family obligations.) I believe that this lack of pressure also resulted in a lack of idealism on my part, not because I’m somehow special or something, but just because I didn’t need to idealize what I was doing in order to motivate or explain my progress. At the end of the day, the culture at large doesn’t value women’s labor in the same way that it values men’s (and my family certainly didn’t have the same expectations for me as it did for my male cousins), which at least in this regard, meant that I didn’t have the same stories to tell about my progress through graduate work and onto the tenure-track as I think men often have to tell, whether to myself or to other people.****
Finally, (and this ultimately will lead into my discussion of “the state of the humanities” and “graduate school in the humanities”), I think that in some respects one of the results of the turn to theory, and the turn to political scholarship, in the humanities has been that individuals who pursue academic careers in the humanities have felt (still feel?) a necessity to underwrite their intellectual endeavors with some sort of “authenticating” identity, or, perhaps more generously, to be sure to situate their subject-position in relation to their intellectual endeavors. In some respects, I think that this is most difficult for white men, and particularly for white men who do not come from privileged class/intellectual backgrounds, in the humanities, who on the one hand are expected to acknowledge their systemic privilege and on the other often feel profoundly alienated from this “privilege” that is supposed to be theirs, particularly in graduate school. As a scholar in the humanities, all of those “marginal” identities can appear to have an easy subject-position to which to point: woman, black, postcolonial, queer, etc. And those who come from class/intellectual privilege can also seem to have a clear claim to labeling themselves as “intellectuals.” And so, for white men in particular, I think a claim to working-class-ness can feel like a way to fit into the theoretical discourses on subjectivity that have dominated theory and criticism for decades.
A corollary of this tendency then becomes to turn a discussion of class in the academy into one of two narratives. The first is a narrative of class mobility through education, of a world expanded through leading a “life of the mind.”***** I myself have viewed my experience through this sort of narrative at various points, and I’m not going to say that there isn’t truth in that narrative. I think that there can be. I do, however, think that it is a story – albeit sometimes a true story – that we tell ourselves. It is a narrative of meritocracy, of naive idealism. It operates under the guise of “following one’s bliss and working hard will produce a positive outcome!” The second is a narrative of disappointment and exploitation through education, of unkept promises and of the high price of seeking a life outside of one’s station. And just like the first narrative, it is a story that we tell, whether to ourselves or others, that sometimes is true. This narrative substitutes plutocracy for meritocracy, and it is profoundly cynical. This second narrative operates under the guises of “telling it like it is” or “speaking truth to power.” (I find the righteousness of this bizarre, as how exactly is it a good thing preemptively to disenfranchise large swaths of the populace from the pursuit of new knowledge?)
I believe that these two narratives are in many ways two sides of the same coin.
Both of these narratives reduce education to it’s value in a sexist, homophobic, racist economy of knowledge (“the market”), which privileges class over all other indexes of identity and creates a profound cognitive dissonance in particular as ideologies of masculinity come into conflict with ideologies of class identity. Further, this economy of knowledge fails to account for the ways in which all individuals, including men, constantly negotiate various subject-positions throughout the different facets of their lives, and they assume a one-size-fits-all answer to questions like “Should I go to graduate school?” or “Is the humanities in crisis?” (If you buy into the first narrative, the answer to the first question is “Yes!” and the answer to the second is “No!” In contrast, if you buy into the second narrative, the answers are reversed.)
And I’m going to go further: reducing educational advancement or scholarship or intellectual work in this way with either of these two narratives is profoundly anti-intellectual and it directly undercuts the mission of the humanities as a whole, which as I see it is about seeing the world in its complexity and trying to figure it out – knowing that we’ll never be finished but that being finished isn’t, actually, the point – as opposed to reducing the world into an easy story to tell.
In some ways, I see this post as a supplement to this incredibly thoughtful and wide-ranging post in which JSench discusses his own path to graduate school in English and his own class background. I think that he does a good job of finding a middle ground between the two narratives that I criticize in this post, and I think that he offers valuable perspective and advice, from the point of view of an advanced Ph.D. candidate who may or not be successful on “the market.” I’m writing, obviously, from a position of greater privilege in that sexist, homophobic, racist economy of knowledge, as a tenured professor with a good salary and benefits. On the other hand, though, I hope that I’ve offered a perspective that accounts for the ways in which women’s experiences in the academy might differ from men’s, even if they come from similar class origins. Class is important, and I hope that I’ve made it clear that I believe that it is. I just wonder where women fit****** into this conversation, as it is most frequently framed. Because at the end of the day, the experiences of my male colleagues of working-class origins who did manual labor in the summers are not generalizable to mine or to those of most (all?) of the women in the academy who come from working-class origins that I know.*******
*It’s worth noting that even his narrative doesn’t do a good job of representing the full range of experience in postwar Britain, and I strongly recommend Carolyn Kay Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman as a necessary counterpoint to Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy.
**from French Feminism Reader, p. 134.
***I’ve actually known a fair number of academic guys with working-class origins who expressed themselves similarly to the way that Karl does about his class identity, so while his post is the immediate impetus to my thoughts here, I think it is generalizable to other white academic guys of around his age with working-class origins whom I’ve known. Also, I want to be clear that gender obviously isn’t the only factor that influences these things, but for me it’s a primary one.
****This is a tangent, but I think that this somehow connects to the narratives about the “crisis” in educating boys/men, and how it is framed as that as opposed to the “success” in educating girls/women. And the need to “welcome” boys/men into institutions of higher education, because clearly we’re doing something wrong if women are outperforming men and attending college in higher numbers than men!
*****The Rodriguez essay isn’t a perfect fit here, because he does talk about the downside of being profoundly alienated from your family if you pursue this path, but at the end of the day, but the Doom and Gloom narratives about going to grad school in the humanities are so dominant these days that another example didn’t readily come to mind.
******I can’t help myself. As I wrote that, I was really tempted to write “where my girls at” because of this song 🙂
*******I haven’t dealt at all with the ways in which race or sexuality or other indexes of identity complicate class and/or gender. This post is long enough! My point isn’t to recenter the discussion on gender, and I want to be clear about that. What I’m trying to do here is to interrogate the tendency to produce a reading of class in the academy that conceives of one kind of experience as universal or generalizable to all. To be fair, I know it’s impossible to avoid the tendency to generalize altogether, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t critique it.