One afternoon in August 2005, my first day on-campus as a full-time college professor, I was mistaken for someone from the maintenance department. I wore blue jeans, a Carhartt shortsleeved shirt, and Doc Martens. Pretty much my uniform walking around New York City. Upstate, however, with a wide stocky frame and facial hair, my look indicated something else.
One secretary mistook me. Then another. Were people not accustomed to an academic in blue jeans and a work shirt? Maybe it was something else, something deeper. Was it the way I carried myself, talked? Was it my class?
Class distinctions have always fascinated me. Growing up in a blue collar town, a truck driver’s son who worked at a car wash since he was 13, the very idea of college was alien, exotic. Walking the hallways of a college–from Rutgers to NYU, New School and my current college–I can’t help but wonder how I ended up there, and how can I navigate this new, supposedly post-class world of the academy.
“Even among my colleagues and friends, many of them Ivy League graduates, I have trouble finding the same cultural anchors,” Naton Leslie, the late Siena professor, writes in his essay, “You Were Raised Better Than That.” “I have learned about the social assumptions of private schools and preparatory schools, the social conventions of the daughters and sons of the well-off who in becoming academics are self-consciously downwardly mobile. I’ve somehow met them in the middle.”
Meeting in the middle. The story of my life.
It’s just a fact that academics, most academics, come from a different background than mine. For the most part, I find it refreshing. But there is a different attitude toward the actual work that I still can’t pinpoint. It’s not entitlement, not exactly. Neither does that overused word, privilege. Genteel, or gentility, comes closer. This different attitude manifests itself in many ways, the most basic of which is body language.
Maybe my body language in 2005 said I am here to work on your HVAC system rather than I am here to get oriented on Blackboard.
Two weeks ago, I published an essay on Gawker called “Why Professors Complain So Much.” It had a couple working titles before that. “Syllabusting My Balls” was by far my favorite, followed by “In Defense of 24/7 Professoring” and “On That Professor Who Banned Students From Emailing Her.” It’s about how professors have found new ways to complain about their jobs, to fend off students from emailing them, among other things.
I stopped reading the comments as soon as the trolls kicked in, most notably the contingent that made the flimsy non-connection of the adjunct union vote at my college (they won, which is great) and my essay’s attempt to de-value … what exactly I don’t know. Before I got a full-time tenure-track job, I worked as an underpaid adjunct for nine years in New York City, and so I am down with the cause. My main point was to examine, and come up with some answers to, the question of why academics complain about their work so much, no matter full-time, adjunct, or graduate student.
There was another comment about my irreverent tone, which confuses me, since Gawker is famous for that. What’s interesting is that it led this person to misread what I wrote about trigger warnings, and how professors complain about having to use them, to warn their worthless and weak students about controversial content. I could go either way on the trigger warning debate, but my point was how professors complain, from both sides, about them. This comment-writer couldn’t get past the tone, and my guess is that that person was very middle class, born and bred. There, I said it.
“Man hands on misery to man,” poet Philip Larkin famously writes, a philosophy academics take up eagerly to complain about their jobs. Many of my fellow professors have refined handing on misery into an art form.
“In the collective eye of the academy,” Stanley Fish writes in “The Unbearable Ugliness of Volvos, “sloppiness, discourtesy, indifference, and inefficiency are virtues, signs of an admirable disdain for the mere surfaces of things, a disdain that is itself a sign of a dedication to higher, if invisible, values.” Fish wouldn’t be such a divisive figure in my tribe if he hadn’t touched a nerve when he wrote that piece than 20 years ago.
As a working class academic, I am a tasker, a worker-bee. I know I’ll never be administrative material and run college-wide meetings. If there’s one thing I disdain, it’s not getting the job done. Which gives me away.
Rebecca Schuman, education columnist at Slate, has built up a cottage industry of complaining about modern college student impulses. She berates, then regrets, a student for poking around on Facebook in a lecture class. Let them find out it’s a mistake on their own, she concludes. She bemoans grade inflation, which as these things go, is worthy of discussion, but instead uses the topic as an excuse to post up professors’ tweet-complaints about obnoxious grade-grubbing student. She then wraps her argument around the flag of adjuncts’ insecure place in academe, instead of addressing how students grades are determined (papers and exams, mostly). It’s not only Schulman, of course. But just what, exactly, is wrong with getting an email from a student with an informal tone?
And now someone over at Inside Higher Ed has taken a look at Schuman’s work, which has irked and annoyed me for its feelings of entitlement and privilege for years now. Charles Green takes the genteel academic’s approach, breaking down her take on peer review, her cherry-picking of crowdsourced tweets to prove her sweeping generalizations about everything from grade inflation to people’s general cluelessness about the Academic Life. It’s concern-trolling as think piece, and while it can be entertaining to most, it’s not exactly the spot-on portrayal of academics it purports to be.
I wore a black shirt on my first day in 2005 to hide any sweat stains that might accrue from lugging boxes of books from my car. Never someone who followed trends in male facial hair, I hadn’t shaved off my beard that morning. I splashed my face with Old Spice. I might, if memory serves, applied under-eye cream before putting on my glasses. I’ve always wanted to blend in, and for the most part it’s worked. Except for class.
In Limbo: Blue Collare Roots, White Collar Dreams, Alfred Lubrano talks about Straddlers, people who were born working class and are now middle class, and how those two worlds often conflict collide. “Professors are the most self-conscious Straddlers,” Lubrano writes, “working with middle class colleagues who don’t understand them, all the while teaching mostly middle-class kids how to become the bosses of their parents, siblings, cousins, and childhood friends.”
There are a few books about class in academia, but most of them address teaching economic class in the classroom, and are rife with academese. Which is a shame. The perception I have is that, in academe, dealing with issues from the perspective of the working class folks isn’t important. It’s usually a top-down affair, with activists taking working class people by the ear and telling them what’s good for them. Protest, they say, occupy this, read that, vote for this candidate. That’s been the story since the Bolsheviks and before and it’s not likely to stop anytime soon.
We’re always going to have wide-eyed Patricians taking pity on the working class rather than talking to them. That would be too difficult; or, to use one of my favorite middle class words, uncomfortable.
When I explain my job to people from my hometown–the classes, committees, rubrics, papers, emails, accreditations, assessments, curriculums vitae–I always fill up the silence at the end–for there always is silence, since most people on the outside, working class or not, cannot believe what our jobs comprise–with the following phrase: it beats real work.
What do I mean by that? Am I embarrassed for doing what I do? I think that’s part of it. Call it survivor guilt, straddling, meeting in the middle; it might not need a name. But it’s there.
Education destroys something. That’s true. For me, it’s destroyed many of the links to who I once was, where I came from. I can no longer relate to people I grew up with or near.
It also builds something else. I’m now in this other world of ideas and papers and syllabi, which I love. I love being in a classroom and teaching about critical thinking, commas, quotes and summaries. It’s the only job I’ve had–and I have had many, from church janitor, car washer, library book shelver, proofreader, and all things in between–that I am actually good at doing.
For the better part of two decades, I’ve met people in the middle and that’s fine. But education does destroy something.
Working class isn’t the same as being eccentric or having a father who moved from one used car sales job to another. Whenever someone self-identifies as “working class,” “dirt poor,” or, worse, “white trash,” we’re talking primarily about a breed of person who self-brands, who sells out their class to advance a new identity.
I sometimes feel like a misfit in both worlds: the world of quizzes and reading lists and the non-academic, non-quiz world.
Most working-class people, I suspect, when they leave the working class and enter academia, simply deny their class. They adopt another identity and leave the other behind. That’s fine. To be working class is always to deny being working class. You’re middle class. That’s what you say you are. People who are upper class never say they’re upper class. They say they’re middle class.
Others struggle. They perform class, as academics like to put it. I lecturing freshmen about getting their work done and going through drafts, because it’s their job as new college students to do so.
To admit to being working class means you’re at the mercy of someone else’s time, some boss’s schedule. You’re not in charge. Working class is something you simply are; you don’t perform it. It’s not something to analyze or parse.
In graduate school, my poems were called “white trash poems” by two people in my workshop: a dude from a rich southern family who kept his blonde hair in a ponytail, and a woman whose parents were from India and Pakistan, and often talked about servants and traveling to Europe. At the time, I brushed both of them off, but it’s stuck in my craw for years now. What could I have said in response to that, as I sat there with a poem about my grandfather? I can only think of combinations of curse words.
With each year I have taught as a college professor, I feel more distanced from where I came. This isn’t good or bad. It’s just a fact. This is my version of the complaining professor, so I feel more at home.