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.]


Anonymous said...

A few more to add (but many more where it came from): (1) If you didn't receive Pell Grants, going to college may not have happened. (2) You do not assume financial security just because you will have a PhD and/or because you got into a "good pedigree" school. (3) You often asked some questions that made people give you a nasty look: And how will this apply to the real world? Why did this author have to write this so poorly that those who actually could benefit from it will never understand it or ever want to read it?

Matt J. said...

Nicely done. I "summered" at work since high school (and still do). I wish you had included some sort of point system, as with the long-ago post about academic employment. How can we tell how declasse we are?

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

@Matt J: A point system would be hard for this. In any case, it's an either/or proposition. You either are a member of the club and understood its rules before starting grad school, or not.

@Anonymous: Good points! I like your last one, since I never understood people who thought they were going to help the oppressed by writing in such stilted language that only the chosen few can decipher it. Ever since I've left academia I've grown to hate its ridiculous jargon even more than when I was in the ivory tower.

Anonymous said...

How about: When you got into grad school your parents told your other relatives that you were "teaching" because they were not sure how to explain why you were "still in school."

Jennifer Garlen said...

A friend posted the link to this piece on Facebook. Wow. You really nailed it. Adds another shade of nuance to my own departure from academe (in addition to everything else that convinced me to leave). Thanks for articulating things I had felt but never really articulated, even in my own head.

Anonymous said...

You are declasse if you don't know what "declasse" means.

Anonymous said...

I'm a "midcareer" academic who is, by your definitions, quite definitely declasse. I do think your class markers are more common on the East Coast/mid-Atlantic, however. I suspect you will find that such conversations aren't happening in graduate schools in Texas, amongst either the faculty or the grad students. I sympathize. I, a struggling-middle-class midwesterner, went to grad school at a mid-Atlantic Ivy League university in the 1990s, and do remember at least one classmate admitting that her insights into class (and by extension mine) were dubious because "we're all rich here anyway." After I told her what my parents made, she looked at me with both horror and respect, and told me I was "poor." Mmm. I do think that if you are fortunate enough to find employment, and it happens to be outside the tight circle of the elite research institutions typified by, say, the Ivies and Sevens Sisters and their equivalents in the hinterlands of California and Chicago and Virginia, this kind of elitism isn't as common, even among the older faculty. Don't worry. There is academia Out Here, and it really doesn't look exactly the same. :)

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

I did time in Texas (three years), and social class was less oppressive at my old institution. However, when I went to conferences I could feel it weighing down on me. I should also add that not being from Texas ended up being as much of a liability there as being lower-middle class was in other contexts when I was on the tenure track there.

Anonymous said...

This was good but I have to point out that declasse academics don't necessarily think of NYC as sinkhole of iniquity since they may have come from there, and nothing screams NY pride more than a Brooklynite who's never left the four square blocks where they grew up.

bevgrey said...

You actually believe the phrase "to the manner born" is quoted correctly above.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

@bevgrey: is it wrong? In my mind, "to the manor born" connotes nobility (rather than bourgeois affinities), and "to the manner born" being high-born in the sense of knowing the correct manner to play the social game. Perhaps I'm wrong, since I've been known to write "the hoi polloi" rather than the correct "hoi polloi."

bambler said...

Isn't it more than a bit black-and-white — and rather poor cultural critique — to claim that "it's an either/or proposition. You either are a member of the club and understood its rules before starting grad school, or not"? If it were an either/or proposition, wouldn't it be very easy to make a point system?

It seems to me that plenty of us come into the academy with a spectrum of exposure to, and literacy in, these cultural memes. "Memberships" can't change? Clubs can't be different in different academic communities? For that matter, can't clubs themselves fluctuate in their mores and discourse habits?

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Your point is well taken.

My point was not that there aren't degrees of privilege, of course there are. (I was also not trying to engage in any kind of "cultural critique" with that comment, just to explain my decision to a friend.) As a straight white man, I have plenty of unearned privilege to offset being declasse that others from my social class don't have. However, there are social class-based rules to the game of academia, and in my experience some people came in knowing them and some people didn't.

Cultures might be different to a certain degree in different communities, as I learned firsthand at different institutions. However, there is such a thing as professional culture, and the hegemonic professional culture of the academic humanities, the one that governs the profession's heights and trickles down below, is very bourgeois. People who aren't raised in a bourgeois milieu find it very hard to adapt. Some might adapt easier than others, but there is definitely a clear line between those who knew the game going in, and those who didn't.

Anonymous said...

It is "to the manner born", not "to the manor". The latter is a backformation, and incorrect (though widespread).

It's a bit like "toe the line" / "tow the line". (Again, the first one is correct.)

Doug M.

Anonymous said...

Two real-life items:

a) Ivy Academic, the daughter of two Ivy League professors, advertise own wedding to another Ivy League academic on the NYTimes.

b) You did not write emails to your impoverished counterpart with the breezy sign-off "Off to Paris!" before jetting off to spend $4000 on a "research travel" to an archive that YOU KNOW could have scanned the two images you needed.

c) You don't get asked by professors if "your papers are in order (i.e. 'are you legal in this country')" before they agree to write you a recommendation letter.

Oh, the list goes on...

Anonymous said...

I'm the poster of the previous comment (sorry about back–to–back postings! You should TOTALLY revive this post and start a #declasseacademic hashtag! So, so revealing!

You posted "You don't drop your alma mater's name into conversations, or automatically expect other people to know about it." A subsidiary of this is when one asks, or it comes into conversation, that someone went to an Ivy they'll say "Harvard" and if waiting for you to go "ooohhh" or, better yet, drop and prostrate before him/her.

Again, I'd love it if you revived this comedic takedown and cathartic exercise of "you know you're a declasse academic when...."

A fan of yours....