The Confessions -- and Confusions -- of a First-Generation Scholar
While a huge literature exists on first-generation undergraduates, there is only silence about what happens to those students when they go on to doctoral or faculty life. Herb Childress provides an insider’s description.
According to the U.S. Census, about 5 percent of American adults in 1940 had a college degree. By 1980, that number had grown to around 15 percent and is now over 30 percent. The continuing influx of greater numbers of students has led colleges to better understand the needs of first-generation undergraduates. Such students are often not only less academically prepared than their fellows but also share little of the cultural capital -- the experience of literature and arts, the social networks, the confidence in institutional navigation -- that their college-family peers have.
Some of those first-generation students struggle, others will succeed, and a handful will decide that academe itself provides a suitable, desirable home. Yet for such people, first-generation graduate students -- those strivers and climbers who offer ostensible proof of social class mobility -- there is almost no understanding or support whatsoever. While a huge literature exists on first-generation undergraduates, there is only silence on what happens when they go on to doctoral or faculty life.
I can tell you a little of what happens.
I am a son of a factory machinist and a telephone operator with one high school diploma between them. Mom always wanted me to go to college, at least in part to fulfill her own fantasy that had been disrupted by marrying my father at 18. But nobody around me went to college. Our neighbors were factory workers, phone linemen, bank tellers and septic-tank installers. Being successful in my community meant owning the family’s car dealership or beer distribution franchise.
At the end of high school, I applied to three in-state public colleges: the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Michigan Technological University. I was accepted to all three and had no way of choosing from among them, nor did anyone in my family. They were all just “college.”
I chose the one that was smallest and farthest from home, and I did fine. I had a bland three-point something-something, I understood derivative calculus but not integrals, I killed a lot of fruit flies in bio lab and I never once intentionally took a specific course. I went where people pointed me, did what people told me to do, performed it all adequately and dropped out after two years. I had no narrative to tie the daily facts into. I was on a path that didn’t have a visible or desirable end. I had capability, but nothing I wanted to be capable of.
I ended up in California and went back to college after seven years away from it, for reasons I no longer remember except probably boredom with work. I started with three semesters of community college at Laney College in Oakland to get some prerequisites fulfilled, and then I transferred to the University of California, Berkeley. Even then, at 27, I didn’t know it was Berkeley. It was just the state school up the road that had an architecture program. If I’d lived closer to Cal Poly Pomona, I’d have been perfectly happy going there, too.
I got lucky. It really was Berkeley, and it lived up to the reputation I wasn’t aware it had. Everywhere I turned, I saw people who cared about ideas, who cared about words, who did their jobs with elegance and precision. My fellow students pushed me, and I pushed them, and we did things we didn’t imagine ourselves capable of.
I graduated with my undergraduate degree in 1989, at the age of 31. Had I come from a college family, I’d have finished my Ph.D. by the time I was 31. Had I come from an academic family, I’d have had half a chance of being tenured at 31. But it was OK. I had a bachelor’s degree in architecture and a deep longing to be adopted into the community of scholars. I knew what the holy land felt like. I knew where I wanted to live.
But it was truly an immigration, an exchange of one citizenship for another. As I went on through my graduate education, I became a class traitor: a source of pride, confusion, envy and intimidation among family and neighbors who once had been natural allies. My family understood that I wanted to become a “college teacher,” but not why studying teenagers’ parking lot hangouts or bedroom personalization was related to architecture. I have come from a culture in which a question like “What’s that book about?” has a singular and brief answer. I had become an ecosystems thinker in a land of A-B mechanical causality.
Every first-generation scholar becomes the butt of jokes about not knowing how to do some task like replace a toilet gasket or stack firewood, how to make a good pie crust or a tortilla, because our labor doesn’t really look like labor. Our siblings become self-conscious in our presence about their use of language. Our furniture is different than theirs. Our car is different than theirs. Our television habits are different than theirs. We buy books instead of fishing gear. We have soft hands. We have become, against our own will, a member of that class of people who once made them feel dumb and have the potential to do so again.
A friend about my age, now also in higher education, grew up with two younger sisters in a family headed by their mother, a waitress. When it became evident during high school that he was interested in reading and ideas and political engagement, his younger sisters began calling him Grey Poupon, after the then-current mustard commercial featuring two chauffeured swells on a picnic. It was the easiest language his sisters had access to for the fact that they felt he was aspiring above his station. Garrison Keillor provides more direct language when he says that the Midwestern Lutheran parenting motto was “Keep your voices down and don’t think you’re something special because you’re not, believe me.”
But as with any immigrant community, naturalized scholars are never quite welcome in their new homeland, either. We study the habits, master the vocabulary, serve on yet another committee. We make sure that our work is immaculate, beyond every expectation. Anything less leaves us exposed and endangered. We take nothing for granted; we always think our cover will be blown, our ruse revealed, our passport revoked. My first-generation colleagues tell me that they can never allow themselves to be seen as “that farm girl,” the former truck driver or warehouseman, pretending to be scholars like little children wearing their parents’ shoes. We master the camouflage that keeps us hidden and safe. We smooth out our jarring regional accents, stop telling jokes, take up skiing rather than snowmobiling. We are double agents.
And the worst of it is that we actively cultivate this disorientation among our own students. We hold in our heart the uncomfortable truth that we’re leading our own students down that same path of cultural alienation, bringing them individual freedom while simultaneously interfering in their familial and community allegiances. We recognize more fully than most that college can change your life -- and in ways that cannot be predicted sufficiently to decide whether that’s going to be a good idea. We love what college has done for us -- to us -- but we can never wholeheartedly cheerlead for higher education, because we know what those gains have cost.
Herb Childress is the author of The PhDictionary: A Glossary of Things You Don't Know (but Should) About Doctoral and Faculty Life (University of Chicago Press, 2016). After a career as a higher education administrator, he now co-owns Teleidoscope Group LLC, a Vermont-based consulting company.
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