I’m a professor with a working-class accent – get over it

I don’t sound like a professor? That’s your problem, not mine, writes Peter Larcombe

June 4, 2016
West Country
Source: iStock

The problems (reside with others)

In 2013, I became the first ever professor of mathematics at the University of Derby. Outside work – and also beyond immediate colleagues on campus – I routinely struggle with the problem of my research being completely beyond description to the layman, but what is more frustrating is the fact that I find people are surprised at my profession simply because of the way I speak – if they hear me first, then get to know what I do for a living, they are usually taken aback.

That’s bad enough, I think, but a further irritant is that some of these same people quite cheerfully go on to offer something along the lines of “you don’t sound like a professor”.

To this, there is really no response (bar short shrift and invective, of course) other than asking what a professor is actually supposed to sound like, and this kind of reaction betrays one fundamental aspect of a society seemingly still very much caught up in the class system despite what politicians tell us – make no mistake, career mobility remains governed to an extent by the way we present ourselves, and verbal communication is an integral part of it in our day-to-day dealings with those around us; our accents and diction matter, in other words. 

I Yam what I Yam

I’m a Yam Yam – someone from the Black Country (part of England’s West Midlands), which comprises Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton. Lying historically at the heart of Britain’s Industrial Revolution, it has produced in us Yams both a dialogue and accent that are different from those of our dear second city neighbours in Birmingham.

With a high- to low-range lilt that is broader than the Brummie version, the Black Country accent has clearly identifiable and distinctive inflections, rhythms and intonations, together with a quicker, sharper speed of delivery. Birmingham and the Black Country might be geographically close, but they are apart linguistically.

They do have one thing very much in common, though, for it would be true to say that both shades of accent – through portrayal on television and radio – have all too often suffered the ignominy of being a marker of dim-wittedness. Funny? No. Accurate? Do me a favour. Have they been used to underpin a false stereotype? Yes, sadly, and it all smacks of media laziness and convenience.

No apology

I make no apology whatsoever for having my accent – I’m rightly proud of it, to be honest – and I resent anyone using it as the basis for an immediate judgement to be made about me.

I work in an intellectually elite subject (and thank goodness I do, clearly), so why is it somehow deemed a little out of place to speak my native regional tongue without it being commented upon as if the two things were incompatible in some way? I really can’t imagine having no accent, and the thought of speaking in bland upper middle-class tones fills me with horror as it would reduce me to a sort of default nothingness.

Read next: Why I asked Twitter about academics from less privileged backgrounds

I meet a lot of people in my job who – conversational content aside – “speak” very well (some of them try just a little too hard, in fact), and one thing I have learned is that an absence of discernible accent is no indication whatsoever of intellect, integrity, honesty, reliability or work conduct, believe me.

Some of them are actually not even that bright academically once you get past the glossy sheen of well-polished externality, spearheaded by proverbial (and dire) Queen’s English. It acts as a protective shield, deliberate or otherwise – and unfortunately does a pretty good job for the most part.

No compromise

I’m an ex-council estate kid who worked hard, and I am good at what I do; but I’ve not abandoned my modest roots and thus carry some of my upbringing with me.

Is that a problem? Do I need an “acceptable” voice to go with my adult role? I write my technical research papers and occasional pieces of exposition (yes, a few of us mathematicians can actually write) in ways that adhere to more or less universally agreed standards and guidelines, so please don’t deny me my own personal means of expression through vocabulary and dialect because they are as much a part of me as the academic side to my personality; I’m a professor and a Yam Yam in combination – that’s the point.

In the same way that I’m a mathematician every waking hour, I’ll never lose my accent or suffer the shame of deliberately watering it down based on a vague notion of public conformity or sense of embarrassment imposed on me for all the wrong reasons.

A lesson to be learned?

On a wider note, there are indeed many successful professionals who have strong accents. But are some of us fighting ourselves in a sense – dampening down natural speaking voices under the assumption that it will help us “get on” potentially as much as any real talent we may have?

At work, students like the fact that they can trust me in terms of subject knowledge, classroom performance and project supervision, but they also recognise that my accent also defines me to a considerable extent, fitting in for one thing with my love of football (remember that the West Midlands is a hotbed of club rivalry) and support of Aston Villa FC in particular. Some of them call me Professor Villa.

They get it – the valid duality of existence – but not everyone does, evidently.

A final thought: I’d encourage everyone to reflect on their own relationship with the singular matter of “the accent”, and ask themselves how it affects their initial perceptions and first impressions of people they meet, and in what ways it frames their relationships afterwards – the exercise may expose a layer or two of unchallenged prejudice, and prove to be a slightly uncomfortable and revealing process of self-evaluation.

Peter J. Larcombe is professor of discrete and applied mathematics in the department of computing and mathematics, College of Engineering and Technology, University of Derby.

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Reader's comments (2)

As a professor from a working class background with a Welsh accent (it's not particularly that strong either) I quite enjoy the look on people's faces when I say I'm a professor with a Valley's lilt. Good on you for highlighting this in your article!!!
I am a visiting professor with a slight Welsh accent, it having been progressively anglicised through many years of living in London and southern England. However, to most English people, I still sound Welsh. No-one ever thinks it incongruous that I have an accent and am an academic, but my problem is that I don't look like a professor. I am a small female who likes make-up, high heels, pretty clothes, and well-cut hair. My husband is also a professor but he has a bald head, glasses, and a beard. He looks professorial, and lay people will defer to him on subjects that he knows nothing about, even though I am the expert in the field under discussion. It is very wearing but it is merely because we are victims of stereotype. In the long run, these matters are not important, but they are exceedingly irritating.

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