Last week, something was evidently bothering me when I asked:
What are the challenges of being an academic from a less privileged background? Questions of 'fitting in' but also practical issues?— Caroline Magennis (@DrMagennis) July 19, 2015
I had been thinking about friends who couldn’t afford to attend conferences, my own post-PhD penury and those times I felt ill at ease in academic situations. I wasn’t entirely prepared for what followed: a deluge of stories both funny and serious, communicated around 140 character tweets, that also touched on race, gender and disability.
It began a conversation around those things that we don't often discuss as academics: how did my background influence the scholar I am today?
At the same time as people lamented the opportunities that had been closed down to them, they also celebrated their upbringing, discussing how it helped them in the classroom. I was overwhelmed by the response: more than 5500 people have now viewed the collected tweets on Storify, and I’ve had multiple emails and conversations since then.
I’ll admit that my reasons for asking the question started off as slightly frivolous: a pervading sense of unease at being asked to perform in social situations that I felt unequipped for. I felt that I was the only person who didn’t know that bread rolls go to the left, or the only one too embarrassed to say “well, no” when asked if I’d seen every Caravaggio in Western Europe.
Sharing our stories and laughing about our small but mortifying missteps allowed me to feel like I wasn’t the only one perpetually terrified they were going to make a faux pas, in the wrong attire, in front of a Guest of Honour.
This was neatly summed up by Catherine Fletcher:
Of course, the problems go far deeper than just social embarrassment, as was shared powerfully by some contributors who talked of the real financial strain academia has placed on their lives, or careers that never got started despite ability and hard work.
It is difficult to make leaps into unknown situations when you don’t have a safety net, and almost impossible to make the precarious nature of short-term contracts work when you have no financial support.
As “Alice V” commented:
Laura Sefton discussed the practicalities of academic life:
Stephen Shapiro noted:
@DrMagennis the exhaustion of simultaneously having to learn 2 new languages, the language of academia and the one of the middle-class.— Stephen Shapiro (@shapirostephen) July 19, 2015
But, despite all this, the generosity of the responses (and the seniority of some of the responders) makes me hopeful. There is no more important time to be talking, openly, about social mobility in the academy and to reflect on what we can do for our students, post-graduates and early career colleagues so that they feel at home in the academy, which sorely needs a diversity of voices holding it to account.
Caroline Magennis is a lecturer in 20th and 21st century literature at the University of Salford.