Friday, 9 March 2012

Once Working-Class Academics

This post has been prompted by A Post-Academic in NYC who is sharing her 'adventures in secretaryland'. A comment by James from selloutyoursoul and his blog post mentions the expectations that have been put upon young people now from their parents. 'Our parents went to university to escape the factory', he writes. Yes, for many this is true and this would seem to capture the experiences of many adults who are parents and are my age now - I am coming up to 49 in June. In 'my day' I aspired to go to university to avoid repeating the life of my working-class parents and family who spent a lot of their working lives in factories. While I live in the UK now, I was born and brought up around the Boston area and studied at University there also. But I was not a child of parents who urged me to get a university education to avoid the factory. Well, I can't say that my mother didn't encourage me to carry on my studies after high-school, but she wasn't in a stable middle-class financial situation and didn't have the resources (time or the creative capacity to know which university might be the best one, etc.) to push me on. At the time I fancied maybe going to art school and she thought this was a nice idea but didn't have a clue where to start and my school never offered any advice in this direction.

I attended a vocational school (I see these schools still exist across the US) and there was big label attached to them - they were non-academic and really set up for those who would not go on to study. When I graduated from 'Applied Art and Design' (lofty term indeed) we were encouraged to get jobs as 'paste-up artists' (another lofty term!) at printing companies or the like. Okay, so now there is desk-top publishing and anyone can design their own newsletter with good effect.

Anyway, I have found that my path to higher education emerged more out my own struggle to prove to myself and to my family that I had more going for me than just the 'vocational school' label. It was pretty tough though. No money, working part-time the whole way through (got fees paid but had to live on my own - was older and out of the home), prefaced by lots of courses at a community college  at night to muster up the basic skills and confidence to apply to full degree programmes. And my mother later on wondered why I didn't try nursing school - good question! She did that later in her life (after many years of factory work) and did very well financially. Well, that wasn't my cup of tea. I felt I needed to soak up all of this knowledge about culture and the world.

But while studying with mainly the privileged crowd of middle-class kids at my Ivy League university, I learned how to perform as middle-class. I learned how to speak like the rest of them. My Massachusetts, Bostonian accent that all of my family have, changed to the kind of standard one that Post-Academic in NYC talks about. I liked the middle-class life (I guess I still enjoy its privileges!), and my performance as a smart middle-class, university education type from an Ivy league place got me the attention I wanted at that time. Well, some of my family didn't seem overly impressed by it. I didn't exactly fit in anymore.

My Post-Grad study in the area of Cultural Studies, Popular Culture also appreciated the other 'working-class' identity that I was trying to figure out. And this was affirming. But I always felt in-between worlds too. Some of my friends in the academic world did come from this kind of 'factory' background, but most didn't. So I felt a lot of the time that academia came easier or more natural for them. And the 'once working-class academics' who were very successful seemed to possess the kind of strength and stamina for the life that I felt I couldn't grasp.

As a 'middle-class' parent now I feel anxious for my middle-class kids. Yes, I want them to have a good education, but I want them to be able to see through some the game of the higher education institution 'factory'. I do not regret all that I have 'learned'. I have grown intellectually in a way that I might not have before my post-grad stint. But perhaps if I didn't do this stint I could have acquired other valuable kinds of knowledge and experiences. I had an uncle who was (uncharacteristically for my family) a political activist and he devoted his life to a range of causes. He challenged me one day by asking why didn't I become more active and teach others outside of the university walls. There is that possibility, it is not formalised in the same ways as in the university institution and there may be more benefits. This conversation has stuck with me. I was reminded of it when I chatted to another PhD student the other day who is near completion. He is pondering whether he should take up the opportunity to travel to Nicaragua and work with an NGO there or whether he should stay in the UK, try to publish his PhD as a book and find an academic teaching job. My advice was: 'Get out of here and go to Central America. It's a war ground here. You're not safe!'

Off for the weekend to Cornwall now to not think about academia!


  1. This is one of those "your story could be my own!" responses. :) Thank you for writing this post. Like most people, I am drawn stories of experiences that coincide with my own, and it's heartening to read about another academic from a blue-collar background. I got into academia because I felt like I had something to prove, and now am ready to get out. Thus, I'm looking forward to reading more about your post-academic life and wish you all of the best.

  2. Thanks for finding my blog MB. I guess I'm trying to realise that I've proved my academic abilities enough now. I'm also trying to see the possibilities of living a life outside of academia in which I can still contribute intellectually with other intellectuals and smart people, or indeed, just interesting people! They certainly exist out there. But finding the right job, or even one that looks like it has some potential, is going to be the tricky thing now during this very bad recession we're in.