A working-class accent in academia is a blessing and a curse

Colleagues may judge those with regional accents more harshly, but poorer students respond to lecturers from similar backgrounds, says Ryan Coogan

November 27, 2019
Two Ronnies Class sketch with John Cleese
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The culture of the academy is predicated upon certain codes. These codes may never be made explicit to us, but we might find ourselves conforming to them anyway, taking them on gradually over the course of our careers until they become an inextricable part of our personalities.

Prolonged exposure to the academic environment can affect the way we dress, the way we behave – both in public and online – and even the way that we articulate our thoughts in everyday conversation. Over time, we might find ourselves passing as academics so naturally that we don’t even realise that we have changed.

Some people may, in fact, have changed very little from where they started. But for those of us from working-class backgrounds, that impulse to fit into the academic milieu can be made all the more difficult to realise by certain aspects of ourselves that are so deeply ingrained that they seem impossible to change.

But why should we need to erase – consciously or otherwise – those aspects? What kinds of penalties are there for resisting them? What does it mean, for example, to talk “correctly” in the academy? Is my Salford accent, cultivated on a council estate, really “wrong”?

A recent study by researchers at the Yale School of Management, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that this very well may be the case – at least as far as university hiring practices are concerned. The study finds not only that social class (both perceived and actual) can be discerned from the recitation of as few as seven randomly selected words, but also that these speech cues can affect an applicant’s perceived suitability for academic positions. Hiring managers’ ratings of the competency of applicants from lower socio-economic applicants were lower if the recruiters listened to recordings of them answering the question “how would you describe yourself?”, compared with when they read transcripts of those recordings – despite the fact that the managers were not provided with any further information regarding the applicants’ employment history or qualifications. Managers were also likely to rate those applicants as less competent than applicants from a higher socio-economic background who were recorded answering the same question.

This will perhaps come as little surprise to those of us whose accents betray our working-class backgrounds. Although I am still a doctoral student, a decade of speaking in conference halls, seminars and lecture theatres has already erased my habit of dropping my Ts and rounding off my Ds, even in casual conversation, such that friends and family at home chastise me for “talking posh”. However, when meeting fellow academics for the first time, I still feel the frequent need to overcome the initial impression that my accent creates – by saying something clever before they automatically assume that I’m not. I have the feeling that however hard I might try, I will never really be embraced by this place that I have worked so hard to belong to.

On the other hand, accents are markers of our identity, and when they are deemed somehow inferior, it cuts to the core of our characters. My accent isn’t just the way that I talk: it is the way that I was raised, the way that I make myself known in the world, the way that my thoughts take immediate shape. To police it is to police some fundamental part of myself. So if I doubt that I’ll ever achieve the anonymity of received pronunciation, it is only partly due to my ingrained linguistic habits. Some of it is my own stubbornness: my unwillingness to erase all trace of my background.

Moreover, that background can sometimes be an advantage. Remarking on the results of their study, the Yale authors state that “if we want to move to a more equitable society, then we must contend with these ingrained psychological processes that drive our early impressions of others…Policies that actively recruit candidates from all levels of status in society are best positioned to match opportunities to the people best suited for them.” From a teaching perspective, this is especially important, not only in matching an academic’s degree of skill and knowledge to the appropriate position, but also in ensuring that students are properly represented by the people teaching them.

The fundamental purpose of the university is to deliver education to those who want it, but that is not possible if we continue to send the message that the apex of the educational profession belongs to one specific type of person. In my own teaching, I have encountered working-class students who have enthusiastically embraced tuition by a seminar leader who embodies their own under-represented socio-economic backgrounds. Working-class teachers, by their very existence, demonstrate the achievability of academic success for everyone, regardless of where they might come from.

So while our voices may hamper our ascent up the career ladder, they are not a sign of educative weakness. Rather, they are a signal that higher education – flawed though it may often be – is a site wherein anyone’s skill can be nurtured and achievement valued. They hold out the promise to working-class students that they will not only be heard at university but also be listened to.

Ryan Coogan is in the final stages of his PhD in English literature at Liverpool John Moores University.

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Reader's comments (1)

I've often felt similarly. Students seem to receive me well and while I've had only a few negative comments from other staff I still feel self conscious about speaking in a working class accent. There are multiple conflicting pressures beyond identity too. It seems that speaking clearly is often equated with speaking "proper" and thus constant public speaking has its own effects on accents.