Coming to Terms With Being a Working Class Academic
I know I have a great deal of privilege. I am a white, thirty-something, well-educated, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied man from Britain. Life is relatively easy for me, and I am well aware of it. But I am also a working class PhD candidate, and academia is one of the few places in which I have ever felt like a minority. People like to think that anyone can make it in the academic world; that it is a meritocracy in which the brightest and best get the support and funding that they deserve, but to be blunt, this is a fantasy.
Academia, despite the efforts of many well-meaning organisations and individuals, is still an elitist institution. We who have entered the industry from a less privileged class position experience both undergraduate and postgraduate study in a very different way to those who arrived here via the predestined path; a path that is open to those who live in a world where it is ‘normal’ to get a PhD, or even to go to university at all. Rather than giving advice, this post identifies some of the underlying causes of the underrepresentation of working class people in postgraduate study. I will try, though, to reflect upon some of the things I have learnt (both about myself and about my chosen ‘career’) while starting out as a working class academic, and I will make a few suggestions that others in a similar position might find useful.
I have talked about this many times with friends and colleagues, but have avoided writing about it until now. I think this is because class (particularly in Britain) can lead to very complicated and sometimes heated debates; it just seems to touch a nerve. Class, for me, is really about capital. And it is the combination of social, cultural and economic forms of capital (or lack of them) that defines a person’s social (dis)advantage, so I will discuss each of these in turn. First, though, I should address what I mean by ‘being working class’.
We are all working class now?
Unfortunately, many people seem to believe this to be the case; and the Labor Party has even gone as far as to say that the working class no longer exists in the UK. But neither of these things are true. There appears to be some confusion, partly because people who are definitely not working class sometimes prefer to say they are, while others who ‘obviously’ are working class would prefer to identify themselves as middle class. For this reason I need to clarify what I mean, and what I don’t mean, by ‘working class’ in this context.
Being working class is not as simple as having had parents who needed to work to support the family. If that were the case it would include almost everyone who studies or works in a university. I have had conversations when people have told me, for example, that they are working class because their father started his own (successful) business and that their mother is a part-time university lecturer. I understand why people think this means that they are working class, but I would argue that this is incorrect.
Rather than working class meaning that you work, I believe it can be better understood as a personal state of mind or way of being that has been defined and shaped by growing up in a family situation that lacked the necessary economic, cultural and social capital to begin life with a ‘normal’ level of opportunity (this is discussed in detail by Reay et al. 2009). If your parents were poor due to unfortunate circumstances, but studied at university level, it is different. If your parents were working class, but did well in life and can support you financially through university, that too is different. Even if they have jobs that would be defined as working class, but read regularly, engage in ‘intellectual’ discussions, and encouraged you to do the same, it doesn’t mean that you aren’t working class but it does make a big difference to your future.
I grew up in a household where my parents were unemployed for long periods of time during (and in the wake of) Thatcherite Britain (here is an interesting article about class and Thatcher). Among my family and friends it was seen as a bit weird to read; there was no bookshelf in my house and I have no memory of my parents ever reading a book at home. This isn’t really surprising because neither of them finished school and both have struggled with literacy throughout their lives. They have never been, and never will be, in a position to help me financially. I am from a working class background, but if I have children, they probably won’t be. Even if I were unemployed during their childhood they would be far less disadvantaged because my partner (who is also working class) and I now have significantly more social and cultural capital than our parents ever did, primarily because we have both been to university.
That is not to say that people who lack one form of capital in their early lives do not have significant challenges to overcome, but it is the combination of a dearth in all three that makes being working class (by my very narrow definition) particularly difficult in the world of academia.
Bourdieu (whose work is at the root of this post) described social capital as:
‘the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition – or in other words, to membership in a group’.
Ironically, without the necessary cultural capital, interpreting what this quote means is quite difficult! In short, it says that if you have the right social relationships, and belong to the right groups or organisations (e.g. a family, a social class, a school, a political party, etc), you will have more opportunities. Most working class people do not have the relationships that are necessary to access this social advantage.
There is evidence that social capital has a direct impact on whether people continue to higher education and also which universities they will attend. For example, the secondary school you attend, the relationships those schools have with universities and the social/class backgrounds the pupils and their parents, influence the decisions you make and the access you have to courses. As Brooks (2008) notes ‘differences in the social composition of schools and colleges and their norms and practices can have considerable impact on the social capital available to young people and the resources upon which they can draw when making their decisions about higher education’. The result is that in both the UK and the US those who go to private schools (almost exclusively middle or upper class children) are far more likely to decide to study further and are also able to enter elite universities (such as Oxford or Harvard) with lower academic achievements than those who attend state schools (p. 1366). If people who identify themselves as working class (up to 60% of the population) do manage to get to university, they do so as part of a minority group: on average, 32% of UK students are working class, while in elite universities (of which Oxford is the most selective) this is as low as 11.5%. Once enrolled, the relationships and networks that working class people have access to is also limited, we are ‘strangers in paradise’.
In a previous post as part of the Graduate Advice Month on Sociology Lens, Lee Thorpe Jr identified how few role models he had, and how little support was offered to him during his undergraduate study. Moreover, his experience as a working class student was compounded by also being a gay man of colour. I think it would be fair to assume that anyone who is from a working class background and identifies as part of other marginalised groups is affected by a lack of social capital to an even greater degree. The advice that Lee Thorpe Jr offers, which I will reiterate here, is-
- When you find a supportive community, regardless of its size, help to foster it.
- Look for those professors who will help you with opportunities.
- Do not be afraid to reach out for help.
I couldn’t agree more. My own experience at the University of Portsmouth was that there were people, both in my cohort and in the faculty, that were sympathetic to my position and even a few who could identify with me through their own experience. Once I found them and asked for help they were incredibly supportive; some of them have become mentors and even close personal friends, helping me every step along the way in my academic career. They have supported me when applying for courses, guided me through the labyrinth of academic bureaucracy, and provided glowing references.
Going beyond our immediate networks within the university, organisations like the Association of Working Class Academics (which I didn’t know existed before writing this post) ‘advocates for students and faculty of poverty- and working-class origins, strives to implement reforms designed to assure greater class equity within colleges and universities […and…] establishes relationships and connections.’ These types of networks allow working class academics to come together to support one another, and to create and benefit from alternative forms of social capital. It is crucial that we do not simply struggle to access the social capital that is out of reach, but instead we identify ourselves and others in order to create our own community and our own social capital within academia.
Cultural capital can be understood as the personal experiences and characteristics that emerge from having (or not having) access to social and economic capital. As Bourdieu notes, this exists in three states:
‘the embodied state, i.e., in the form of long-lasting dispositions of the mind and body; in the objectified state, in the form of cultural goods (pictures, books, dictionaries, instruments, machines, etc.), […] and in the institutionalized state, […such as…] educational qualifications.’
Though academic courses supposedly start students off from the beginning, if you have grown up in a family that reads about and discusses politics, economics, business, geography, history or anything else that might be considered ‘general knowledge’; seamlessly slipping into academia is far easier and takes a lot less self-reflection and adjustment. Working class people, on the other hand, must assimilate ourselves in a culture that is not designed for us. This entails developing an identity that is disconnected from our past. As we change the way we speak, the way we write and the way we think, as we develop new relationships and become interested in things that are outside of our class culture, we risk alienating ourselves from our families, friends and communities (see e.g. Matthys, 2013).
I have been lucky, in that my family (despite not really understanding what I do or why I do it) have always been supportive. This support is invaluable, but the distance that has developed between us over the years is obvious. I want to be able to talk to my parents about the stresses and strains of academic life, I want them to understand what it actually entails to do a PhD, and I want to be able to explain my research to them (although, as discussed in this previous post, I can barely explain it to other academics).
I feel different to them because, as I have gained access to more cultural capital and, as my experience has diverged from theirs, I have changed… a lot! An example (and one that I regret) is that I have lost my regional accent. This doesn’t sound like a big deal but it signifies something more to me (my colleague here on Sociology Lens has discussed this in more detail). When I am with my family, I know that I sound different to them (though the odd word I say gives away my West Country origins); I have left my accent, and subsequently part of my identity, behind. I don’t doubt that this is a direct result of subconsciously trying to fit into my new world. Susan (on the AWCA website) summaries how important maintaining a class identity is. She states that being a working-class academic means ‘Staying true to my roots, always standing alongside working class and other marginalized groups, implicating capital in my scholarship and my teaching.’ When I was younger, I was ashamed of my accent, it gave away my social position and made me feel inferior. Now, I am embarrassed that I ever felt like that.
Cultural capital also has a direct impact on our academic achievements. I remember the first essay I wrote at university. I worked so hard on it, but I had no idea what was expected of me, what was ‘acceptable’ academic language or what sources were ‘legitimate’. I tried to use big words, not really understanding what they meant, and I talked about my opinion, rather than just the ‘facts’. Needless to say, it wasn’t very good, but it did give me a starting point from which I could begin to learn how to write. I found out that my reading and writing levels were significantly lower than would be expected at university. It had nothing to do with my intelligence, I just hadn’t developed it in the ways that other people had. This is not uncommon, working class people tend to fall behind on literacy at every stage of education.
Over my first year, in order to catch up I took additional literacy and academic writing classes (the University of Portsmouth had a great Academic Skills department that offered one-on-one classes for people in my position), but it wasn’t easy. I am lucky in that I have a somewhat determined and confident personality, but I still felt embarrassed by how far behind I was (even though I was eight years older than a lot of the other students) and often felt that I was out of my depth, that I didn’t deserve to be there. The additional pressure that it put on me was evident. I just had to do more work than other people to get the same grades. Of course, learning to write ‘academically’ is hard for everyone, but for many working class students it is like learning a whole new language.
It is difficult to give advice on this, because it is something I continue to struggle with. But I can say this: what we as working class people might lack in cultural capital is more than made up for in experience, tenacity and insight. I have often felt that having grown up in a working class home I have a more intuitive understanding of some social/cultural phenomenon than some of my more privileged classmates. I also believe that it has significantly influenced my approach to study, my interest in ‘development’, poverty and (in)justice and my determination to ‘prove myself’ every step of the way. As a friend commented on Facebook recently, when you are working class, studying is not just something you do because it is the done thing, it is a big risk to take, and demands a major commitment. She told me that while at university she lived in the knowledge that she would never have a second chance. She said ‘I could not afford to not pass, or to change my mind’. I felt exactly the same in my undergraduate degree, and I wouldn’t wish this extra pressure on anyone, but I believe that this commitment, despite any disadvantages we might have, also leads to working class people performing just as well as students from more privileged class backgrounds, and sometimes (because working class people that have made it this far are a more select group) even out performing them (Martin, 2010, p. 31).
In many ways this is the most obvious and most significant factor in the experience of working class students lives. There are so many advantages to having more economic capital that I won’t even be able to scratch the surface of them here. It has even been argued that access to social and cultural capital are really only the result of how much money you have. Though, I am not convinced it is quite so clear-cut, with enough money, the other obstacles are certainly easier to overcome. For example, Leah Wiener (2014) notes how her own ability to access the ‘merit-based awards’ that she used to support her education was really ‘the product of […] class privilege’. This is because (usually) scholarships to universities and other financial awards are based on the grades that you have obtained so far and your practical experience. It has little to do with your potential. The same is true when applying for postgraduate study. Those who have relevant work experience are far more likely to be accepted onto courses, but to gain this experience young people are expected to work for free. Unpaid internships have become a powerful force in strengthening the class divide, working class people just cannot do them, it is practically impossible. The ‘Gap Year’ (we working class call this ‘being unemployed’) experiences of those who (or whose parents) can afford it also provide many advantages once at university.
Those who do have additional financial support from their parents are less likely to need to work during their studies and if they do so it will often be to earn a bit of extra cash, rather than to make ends meet. I even know of a few people who were fully supported by their family throughout their study, invested their student loans and grants, and worked part-time jobs in bars and clubs for ‘fun’. By the time it came to applying for postgraduate study, those people had these mythical things called ‘savings’, meaning that they could pay for further education themselves. Or, if they were so inclined, could take six months off to do unpaid internships. Most working class people, on the other hand, leave university in almost unmanageable debt.
The additional pressure of financial struggle means that working class students (myself included) struggle to manage their time. For example, during my first masters degree I worked as a security guard on twelve-hour night shifts up to four times a week, and sometimes went straight from work to 9am classes. Other times I found work as a labourer and skipped classes altogether because the money was ‘more important’ than the lectures. The result was that I was always trying to catch up, I didn’t have as much time as other people did to study. In addition, as Martin (2010, p.324) notes, this means that working class students are far less active in campus life. They are less likely to be involved in societies, groups, campus political processes and socialising. The inevitable result is that working class people are further marginalised and continue to have less access to social and cultural capital when they reach postgraduate study.
There isn’t a great deal of advice I can give regarding economic capital; you can’t just make money appear from nowhere. However, most universities do have funds available for people who are struggling financially, and I recommend that you seek these out sooner rather than later. It wasn’t until I was really broke and considering quitting university that I found out about my university’s ‘hardship’ fund. It made a big difference to me, though I still had to work a lot to make ends meet. I know it is difficult (especially for working class people) to admit that you need help, but the money is there for those who need it and there is no shame in asking for it.
It is tempting to think that because some working class people make it through university and continue on to postgraduate study that anyone can do the same. It can and does happen, but this is not the same as saying that all those who have the potential to make it will do so. While I do believe that (in the end) it is a combination of hard work and aptitude for academia that leads to good grades, working class people need to do more hard work and have more aptitude to begin with. Until there is significant structural reform, both within higher education and across society more generally, academia will continue to marginalise anyone who has limited access to social, cultural and economic capital.
I know this has been a long post, and not much of it is really ‘advice’, but that is because it is just harder to get to postgraduate study if you are working class. No amount of advice will change that. My intention has been to show that working class people are an important part of academia and though we may not have access to the various forms of capital that might make things easier, our knowledge, experiences, and ways of being are an important part of university culture, and the research we do is unique and valuable. To make the most of this, it is imperative that working class people create networks and relationships within academia and with other working class people, especially those who are considering an academic career. By doing so, we can create our own forms of social capital and can help each other to develop our cultural capital, and access funding, support, and courses that might otherwise be out of reach. While doing so, we must not forget our class identity, because it is this that allows us to become a community of ‘working class academics’, rather than just being working class people who happen to work in academia.