Thursday, September 19, 2013
How To Tell If You're a Declasse Academic
I realize this post might be arcane to those who have never worked in the academic field, but bear with me here, since I think it touches on some general social class issues in this country.
One interesting thing I've noticed about academics is that while almost all of them drive sensible cars, live in modest homes, and buy their clothing off the rack (at least in the humanities), there are still some subtle and very powerful class markers at play. I've had many conversations over the years with friends sharing stories about how oblivious our advisors and committee members could be to our economic situations, and got talking about how some academics are "to the manner born": they grew up in academic families, or at least among the well-educated upper bourgeoisie in places that hold cultural cachet. (i.e., not Nebraska) Having an academic job requires navigating its culture, which is awfully tough. These days, with the jobs drying up, the cultural knowledge and connections that come from a bourgeois background are more important than ever.
While they don't make a lot of money relative to others with advanced education, members of the academic profession still attach a lot of importance to the accoutrements of the high class life. This often made academic culture hard for me to navigate at times; I grew up in the rural petite bourgeoisie, i.e. eating casseroles instead of cavier. I never really thought I was a member of the club, that I didn't mesh with its culture or priorities. I guess I was right all along, and I wonder how many people who have been squeezed out of the profession in recent years felt the same way. Without further ado, here are some questions that can help you find out which camp you belong in.
You might be a declasse academic if:
You or any of your family members has ever had a job where you "washed up" after coming home from work.
(Thanks to Brian I. for this one. I'm amazed at the number of people in my profession who've never had to get their hands dirty outside of gardening.)
You actually worked jobs during the summer in grad school to support yourself.
(I can't believe the number of profs who expect their students to magically conjure money to support themselves while researching in the summer.)
Before you went to grad school the only categories you knew for wine were "red" or "white."
You have never used the word "summer" as a verb (as in "we summered in the Hamptons this year").
Members of your family were drafted during Vietnam and couldn't get out of it. (Like a lot of other guys, my relatives didn't want to go, but they didn't have a choice.)
Getting a Ph.D. makes you the most educated member of your family.
Growing up you took family vacations by car (not plane) to locations in the US (not Europe or elsewhere if you took vacations at all.)
You or your family members wear or have worn "trucker caps," overalls, or cowboy boots not as ironic fashion statements but for purely practical reasons.
Your family pressured you NOT to go to the Ivy League for college, because why would you want to be around those snobby rich assholes who think their shit don't stink? (That's the message I got from my parents, at least.)
People in your social circle growing up viewed New York City as a sink of iniquity, not the shining center of the universe.
Your idea of a good restaurant is a place that has "good food and a lot of it for a reasonable price."
You drank Pabst Blue Ribbon before it became a hipster beer. (I have to admit, I totally jumped on the hipster bandwagon with this one.)
You don't utter asinine phrases like "I don't think I know any Republicans." (I actually heard this said before the 2004 election and wanted to put my head through the wall. No wonder the Left got thumped for so long! So many on our side saw conservatives in zoological terms.)
You live in a Midwestern college town like Champaign-Urbana and you don't constantly complain about how it isn't New York or San Francisco. In fact, you really like it.
You don't drop your alma mater's name into conversations, or automatically expect other people to know about it.
When you go home for the holidays you feel more and more estranged from the values of your upbringing with each passing year, and your family doesn't seem to understand who you've become.
You've never had a conversation comparing the relative merits of private boarding schools in the northeast. (I was around some people doing this on the first day of my master's degree program, that's when I began to realize that I was entering into a different world.)
That's all I can think of for now, and of course not all apply to everyone. Feel free to add your own.
[AUTHOR'S CAVEAT: I should note that the examples I provide are based mostly on my own experience as a lower-middle class white man from the rural Midwest, so they're not meant to be exhaustive or definitive. Other people with different backgrounds from me will certainly have different class markers to contribute to the conversation.]