Why I asked Twitter about academics from less privileged backgrounds

Caroline Magennis explains why she took to social media to find out if she was the only one who felt uneasy in academic circles

July 27, 2015

Last week, something was evidently bothering me when I asked:

 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:

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.

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Reader's comments (2)

Academics in the private sector are further treated to be secondary citizens. The rate of remunerations and the roles and responsibilities are derived on the basis of where you lived, what you wear and your circumstances to take up the academic roles. The academic credentials aid less privileged to reach the interview table, but they are unfortunately scaled and assigned tasks based on their economic and personal background. The greater the need for a person to take up a role, the more is exploitation. The cover of the book hence becomes more important than the contents.
Why study poetry? Many of the poets who commented cited access to libraries, being in a stimulating atmosphere, and doing something productive. Very few said what their research would entail, how it might relate to disciples other than 'creative writing', or what it is about current criticism which needs attention. A subject that interests me is the 'canon' of modern poetry and its 'privilege' compared to 'People's Art' as exemplified in a book of the same name by Emmanuel Cooper, who also wrote on sexuality and politics while running a successful pottery. Isn't poetry quite similar to pottery? It has its kilns and glazes.

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