Blue-collar advantage: how working-class academics can bring us together

Scholars with working-class backgrounds are ideally placed to change how academics are perceived, says Stefanie Stiles

April 25, 2017
Workmen at university
Source: Alamy

As argued by cultural commentators as varied as Camille Paglia and Michael Moore, one way to understand the election of Donald Trump (and Brexit) is as part of a global resistance in the West against the perceived elite of society. 

This group purportedly includes major segments of the mainstream media; “limousine liberals”; and everyone’s favourite whipping boy, Academics in their Lofty Ivory Towers. That the businessman Trump, a child of privilege, is an unlikely champion of the proletariat, is a story for another day.

Given this widespread perception, the working-class academic has an especially important role to play in this era. Like never before, there is a need to show the public that intellectual enquiry is not the sole preserve of the middle and upper classes, that accredited subject-area experts have meaningful knowledge to share, and that the university community and the working class have many values and goals in common.

With footholds in both worlds, the working-class academic is uniquely positioned to do all these things.

Historically, much of the literature on working-class academics focuses on the challenges we face: marginalisation within post-secondary institutions; dual estrangement from home and professional life; impostor syndrome in overdrive and the like.  (See, for example, anthologies such as Ryan and Sackrey’s Strangers in Paradise, Dews and Law’s This Fine Place so Far from Home, and Tokarczyk and Fay’s Working-Class Women in the Academy.)   

But relatively little mention has been made of the advantages of being an academic with personal insight into the struggles of the poor and the lower-middle class.  

Anthropologists have long understood the benefits of an emic or insider’s perspective: namely, a richer, qualitative understanding of the inner workings of a cultural group. Etic views, if arguably more objective, tend to be more conceptually rigid. The chasm between etic and emic viewpoints may explain the still widespread disbelief in the academic community over the defeat of Clinton and the election of Trump.

Whether or not a person is astounded by this outcome, I’ve found, breaks down pretty reliably along class lines. As a general rule, academics with roots in the professional class (read: most academics) are horrified and confused; academics with roots in the working class, on the other hand, are horrified and comprehending. We’ve all heard parents, aunts and uncles, and siblings grouse over the dinner table about “bureaucrats in Washington” (or London, or Ottawa…) making decisions on their behalf, without any real knowledge or understanding of the lives of their constituents. 

When livelihoods are on the line, that resentment can become white-hot anger.  

My father has a favorite term for members of the professional class: “pencil-pushers”.  Anachronistic as it is now, this term, uttered disdainfully, conveys the wage-labourer’s contempt for the bureaucrat, politician or academic’s perceived pedantry; their supposed physical and moral weakness. The working-class academic forever struggles, in her heart of hearts, to overcome the belief that she too is only a “pencil-pusher”, shielded from the rigours of life.

Unlike many of her peers, she notices when the maintenance worker strains to lift the pressure-washer on to the truck. She feels acute embarrassment that she has nothing heavier to lift than a laptop. As uncomfortable as it can be, as long as this internal conflict persists it is meaningful, because it connects us to our remembered lives – lives that are no different from those of millions of working-class people today. 

So how can we leverage this insider’s knowledge to build bridges between (borrowing examples from Julie Lindquist) the barroom and the classroom? 

First of all, academics with blue-collar roots need to make our presence and cultural experiences better known to the public – and our peers – to explode stereotypes about academics as universally well-to-do, out-of-touch, navel-gazing elitists. For some of us this may mean, in essence, “coming out of the closet” and abandoning the carefully constructed middle-class Milquetoast personae we’ve adopted to integrate into the still largely class-bound realms of higher education. 

Many of us have used silence and passivity to make it as far as we have, but no longer. To be clear, I’m not advocating becoming adversarial or self-righteous. I’m saying that we need to better integrate our multiple authentic selves when in dialogue with others. 

In general, we need to change the way we communicate in the public sphere. Working-class academics must make a concerted effort to stop “code-switching” in these situations – or more accurately, to develop a rhetorical style that appeals to a wider swathe of the population. To me, this means a style that is authoritative and substantive but also friendly and engaging. 

We need to stop using academic jargon, or worse yet, language choices that might antagonise or patronise others. Personally, I favour straightforward terms like “poor” over euphemistic language like “economically disadvantaged”. Such a hybrid style is more authentic to our experience anyway. 

We should also selectively retain pithy colloquialisms and regional expressions, and use them when effective. Barack Obama, whose life is a testament to the power of using duality constructively, was a master at these things. 

Finally, we need to embrace our potential role as cultural go-betweens. The blue-collar academic is accustomed to passing back and forth between realms. At home, we don’t want to appear “stuck-up”, and in the workplace, we don’t want to appear unsophisticated, so we often censor ourselves in both environments, or oscillate uncomfortably between them. There’s a third option, though, granted, it’s easier said than done. Author bell hooks has pointed out that working-class students and scholars need not choose definitively between one set of experiences, mores and discourses. 

She states: “They must creatively invent ways to cross borders. They must believe in their capacity to alter the bourgeois settings they enter.”  

That works both ways. What would happen if we used our insider’s knowledge of working-class conditions more frequently in discussions with colleagues on first-generation students, or our insider’s knowledge of theory to discuss concepts such as “cultural capital” with our parents? Of course, we might run the risk of boring both groups to tears, but if we listen as well, avoid preaching and even (God forbid) maintain a sense of humour, we can expose our friends and colleagues to perspectives that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to.  

The oft-cited irony of all this is that working-class academics are, in a sense, a contradiction in terms. That is because the full professor and the lowly adjunct share a privilege that most blue-collar workers do not: they have a public voice, should they choose to use it. 

This incomparable gift is described well in Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez, one of America’s iconic memoirs of social mobility through academic achievement. Rodriguez chronicles his journey from awkward Hoggartian “scholarship boy” to public intellectual, a sometimes painful process that involved cultural separation from his Spanish-speaking Mexican immigrant parents. He argues that learning English as a schoolchild was a necessary part of his development. Rodriguez claims that “while one suffers a diminished sense of private individuality by becoming assimilated into public society, such assimilation makes possible the achievement of public individuality”.  

As working-class academics, we have platforms for expressions of “public individuality” that our parents did not have. This essay is a case in point. 

As cultural go-betweens, we can use these platforms to translate the sometimes mutually mystifying behaviours of the different classes to one another. In this era of mass resistance to globalisation, ultimately the role of the working-class academic is to act in the interests of social unity.

Stefanie Stiles is an adjunct faculty member of Ethics and Society in Seattle University's Institute of Public Service. She is a member of the Working Class Studies Association.

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