01 July 2008

The Night Gallery: Academic Class

Some weeks ago, while perusing a Chronicle comment page on graduate school, I ran across a thread by someone considering an application to a graduate program in the humanities who remarked that everything they read via academic blogs was dissuading them from a career as a professor. A commentator on the thread responded by dismissing academic blogs as the territory of the dissatisfied and angry, those with the proverbial ax to grind, and that his or her experience had been, to put it colloquially, just peachy, thanks. The subsequent advice was to ignore the hysterical electronic Cassandras of the interwebs and follow one’s dreams. In the United States, Horatio Alger trumps Machiavelli every time.

Obviously, I have often thought of this Cassandra function of many academic blogs, and the occasionally relentless negativity academic blogging can present about our work lives and sense of self, sometimes to the occlusion of the joys and benefits, be they what they may, of what we do in the professoriate. The tension here, especially in a society as underwritten by sunny narrative as the United States, is the pragmatic darkness of the critical academic blog narrative that seems untoward, improper, and disrespectful. Some of this impropriety has been present in online discussions of tenure and promotion, as well as the dedicated use of the pseudonym in academic blogging and the constant vandalizing of the academic job wiki this past year. I could wax theoretical about the potential transgressive functionality of academic blogging against the hegemony of Mammon and the institution, the voice of the powerless in the face of power, et al. But you already know that, having heard it before for other micro-phenomena in stuffy hotel meeting rooms, wondering where you can get a cup of coffee and a bagel.

Suffice it to say that academic blogging, and this blog in particular, has partaken in the attempt to offer a correction to self-conceptions in the professoriate about who we are and what it is we actually do, and how that circulates and operates in an institutional framework that is both varied and universal. As opposed to the Horatio Alger-driven narrative stream of parts of the professoriate, the “just peachy” school of narcissistic interpretation (i.e., my experience was fine, therefore, the Business is just fine) that rewards and punishes individuals but refuses to indict structures, the Night Gallery of alternate experience that drives much academic blogging, sometimes quotidian but at other times rather extraordinary, offers us the macabre, the strange, and the surreal. This dark side of the professoriate, however, is no less legitimate or relevant than the sunny story line, just perhaps more unpleasant to assimilate, more Catholic than Protestant in its worldview.

This critical edge, the unseemly observation of the edges of hegemony, is both political as well as experiential. That is to say, learned as much as intuited, although it seems here that intuition is the stronger emotional lead. Recently, I completed a teaching seminar on working class students in the academy that focused both on theoretical applications of socio-economic class in the academy as well as practical retention tools directed towards working class students. At Cold City U., where our primary demographic is non-traditional working students re-entering university, often in pursuit of credential degrees, such tools are quite important, not only for retaining students who may be at greater risk of dropping out, but to help us fulfill our institutional directive, which is precisely the successful education of these non-student students.

I was struck, and surprised really, by two things about the seminar: firstly my own passionate investment in what all these questions mean, and secondly the institutional contrasts between Lil’ Prestigious College and Cold City U. that are sustained by class difference. The latter seems almost like a no-brainer, although coming back from the Gilded Lily to a largely underfunded utilitarian working class university made me more sharply aware of the distinctions between institutions and student opportunities that are fundamentally, transparently unfair. For many academics, even those teaching at a place like Cold City U., the unrelenting perception is that our students will never be technically competent in the fantastical manner in which we imagine teaching, Mr. Chips and the Dead Poets Society and The Paper Chase. But after a year with the remarkable! special! amazing! students of PLC, I remain convinced that techne is not the basis of distinction here. Rather, it is the larger institutional perception of quality. Dullards exist everywhere, although they are decidedly more unpleasant when they think they are the shit.

For the working class academic, or those academicians that emerge from the purported lower orders, our achievements are always under scrutiny, always questioned, constantly re-thought. The sharp edge of this questioning for me emerged in discussions over what constituted working class culture, and how to accommodate that cultural stream in an institution fundamentally geared towards middle- and upper class training. I found myself engaged ferociously in attempting to honor working class ways of learning while simultaneously trying not to undermine my own (and others) success in the system through assimilation of those middle- and upper class mores.

Some seminar participants had rather strong ideas about what constituted working class student learning models, and in those idea(l)s, I sensed a whiff of noblesse oblige, however unintentional. Since most of the participating seminar academics themselves came from the working class, I also was aware of a certain abjection, a self-negation towards our own successful negotiation of the structures of the university that we were now attempting to ameliorate for our current students. I was surprised at my own ferocity in debating these things with my colleagues, my tenacity in accommodating different learning models but refusing to disown the system completely, for in that abandonment is the erasure of my own accomplishment.

How we learn to become who we are in the university is, of course, driven by class-based assumptions (among others) that are largely invisible, and during the seminar, I returned often to memories of childhood, of differential expectations and chance encounters that, had one or two things been shifted, a opportunity not opened, a connection not pursued, would have resulted in a very different life. Those alternative selves are not bad in and of themselves, just remarkably different. Many American writers, from Fitzgerald to Rodriguez, have delineated class leaps and verisimilitude, in many ways the quintessential American story.

Negation, deauthorization, and neurosis are primary ideological elements in those stories, but in the post-sixties era, we want to be more holistic about our students’ success. Sometimes that drive towards holistic educational models, however, belies our own class-based assumptions about success and working class potential, as well as leaves largely unexamined and uninterrogated the presumptions of class and intellectual promise that speak more to our own self-conceptions of worth and experience than anything our students may actually be capable of.


Anonymous said...

"Sometimes that drive towards holistic educational models, however, belies our own class-based assumptions about success and working class potential"

"How we learn to become who we are in the university is, of course, driven by class-based assumptions (among others) that are largely invisible, and during the seminar"

What are these assumptions, about success, about working class people, their ways of learning, that are being brought in here?

I ask because I think you implied, rather than stated, exactly what class-based assumptions are. I wish you would say more.

Professor Zero said...

I'd like to hear more, too, and I'd have loved to be in that seminar.

Professor Zero said...

In particular: what are working class learning models? Maybe I'll google that right now... ;-) ...but I'm dying to know since most of my students are working class.

Doctor Pion said...

I am quite interesting in your reference to "practical retention tools directed towards working class students" and would love to see a blog giving a Top Five description of ones you think are practical.

I teach physics at a CC to future engineers, so lots of my students fit into the category addressed by this seminar. One thing that can be quite scary to them is that they become "different" as they progress toward that goal, getting changed in more ways than they expected. You (and Dr. Crazy's post that sent me over here) articulate your version of that experience really well.

That progression is also part of my family history, but it is the part that made my father and his brother (and their children) who they became. I am farther removed from that transformative step, and hence less aware of its impact.