On being working class in the academy

Hello, my name is Katie and I’m a working-class academic.

Being working-class is something I mention relatively often and think about even more so. It’s a salient part of my identity. It never used to be.

I never thought I would get into university, it was something that other people did. I had a friend who lived several doors from me while growing up and his older sister had “gone off to uni”. I remember thinking ‘that must be amazing – access to all that learning!’. Quitting my job in a pub and going to university (thanks to a foundation year programme) was the culture shock that shone a light on my background.

Student: What are you doing at the weekend?

Me: I work on weekends. I’m a barmaid.

Student: What’s that like?

Me: Working in a bar?

Student: Having a job?

Now, I know middle-class students work and I also knew that then, but that logic was overridden by my feelings of alienation. I didn’t belong in this place, a place that was indeed filled with learning, open-minds and intellectual curiosity but also a place occupied by ‘bank of mum and dad’ and going through the motions mindsets and stress due to parental pressures to succeed in higher education, no matter what.

The advantages of that ‘black sheep’ feeling

After an initial identity crisis, with some help from the university counselling service, I thrived at university. My alien position empowered me to disregard social norms and expectations and fueled me with a determination that I have thrived off ever since. I had too much to lose. I couldn’t go back to working full-time in a bar where sexual harassment, potentially illegal working hours and the minimum wage were the best I could hope for. And I certainly couldn’t go back to Job-seekers allowance.

I studied and studied hard, sometimes to the detriment of my most valued social relationships and my wellbeing but it became a passion and I wanted to succeed. When my initial grades were excellent, it only made me study harder. I outperformed most of my peers and received university and national recognition for my academic performance.

So, does social class matter?

Social class is often ignored. We are in an age of social mobility. YouTubers can make millions from their boxroom bedrooms and more people are in higher education than ever before. Why bother with social class? And why bother with social class if and when working-class folk have landed themselves jobs in the academy? Paul Wakeling posed the question Is There Such a Thing as a Working-Class Academic?

British professionals from working-class backgrounds earn on average £6,800 less per year than their middle-class counterparts, according to The Social Mobility Commission. Several factors are thought to cause this, including conscious and unconscious discrimination, as well as cultural-mismatching – not being able to navigate the social norms, language and practices of an alien culture. Others talk of a ‘class ceiling’ and how they feel less inclined to negotiate higher starting salaries and pay-rises. One study found that the more upwardly mobile professionals were, the more discrimination they encountered.

What is being done and what more can we do?

I feel that visibility is key. In a piece in the Guardian last month, Melanie Reynolds argued that working-class lecturers should come out of the closet. There is some fantastic and inspiring work going on out there, by proudly self-identifying working-class academics, artists and others, often about working-class culture. A few who have inspired me include –  Jessica Eaton, Jamie Thrasivoulou and Lisa Mckenzie.

Class clearly is a social issue. I write here specifically about working-class people in the academy as that is how I identify, but it would be unethical and inappropriate for me to not acknowledge issues faced by the working-class more widely. White working-class boys in Britain in particular, risk facing great health and social challenges (suicide and unemployment to name just two), facilitated by a lack of support and opportunities. Minority ethnic and LGBT working-class folk similarly can experience a multiplicity of challenges stemming from social norms, discrimination and imposter syndrome.

Given my research interests in social norms, stigma and community empowerment. I would like to look to do some more research and make a difference in this area. That is one of my next goals at least. Hopefully, this short blog is a small step in that direction.

All illustrations are original work with thanks to www.jamesfoxillustration.co.uk

Any links to any particular individual or organisation unless explicitly stated is not intentional and cannot be assumed to be correct or factual.

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