Blue-Collar Ph.D.

James M. Van Wyck engages with Lynn Arner in a conversation about class and the creation of the professoriate.

August 10, 2017
Lynn Arner

Over coffee last month, a friend described a difference in his reception on the academic job market after he secured an Ivy League postdoc. He told me that, while his middle-tier institutional affiliation cracked a few doors, sending out applications on Ivy League letterhead busted them open.

That’s when it struck me: he’d laundered his degree. His credentials hadn’t changed, really. (He’d published over a half dozen articles before going on the job market the first time.) But he’d overcome a prestige deficit by switching letterheads.

This story shouldn’t surprise anyone with a stake in the tenure-track job market. Prestige, after all, is the hemoglobin in the bloodstream of academic value. We’re all familiar with a version of the academic placement truism that “universities don’t hire down.” Highly ranked programs hire their own, those aspiring to be highly ranked hire from the ranks of those already on top and so on.

But academe’s prestige problem isn’t just about reifying the top 40 Ph.D. programs in a particular field. In fact, we’re still unpacking the ways that prestige chasing connects with a classed professoriate.

Lynn Arner -- a medievalist and gender-studies scholar by training and currently an associate professor at Brock University in Ontario, Canada -- studies how socioeconomic backgrounds and gender shape the careers of English professors. One of Arner’s central arguments is that most academics disavow the extent to which prestige-chasing practices link up with assumptions about class to shape hiring practices in higher education.

Arner’s work complements a growing body of research examining the clunky apparatuses by which higher education seeks to diversify the professoriate. Many well-intentioned efforts are hampered by homophily as well as the inability to recognize how certain value systems have produced a professoriate laden with professors drawn from the middle and upper classes.

Arner has confronted the phenomenon firsthand. When she was on the job market in the 2000s, she interviewed for several tenure-track jobs at research universities and says she kept losing to candidates with doctorates from the same universities: Yale, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania. She taught as a visiting faculty member at a research university in an English department “where working-class female faculty members were relegated to the temp pool,” she recalls. In contrast, women hired into tenure-track positions were solidly middle class and had Ivy League pedigrees. “While I taught there, the department had a tenure-track search in my area, but a middle-class woman with an Ivy League doctorate blocked me from being interviewed at the Modern Language Association, pronouncing me ‘not well enough connected,’” she notes. “I was simultaneously appalled and fascinated by the fierce classism in this department that served large numbers of working-class students in a city with a celebrated working-class history.”

It’s clear that recruiting and hiring a professoriate as diverse as the student population it serves requires intentional, systemic change. One area in need of a revamp is graduate admissions: we can’t hope for a diverse professoriate if we continue to recruit and admit students just as we have in the past.

Assumptions about the living conditions of prospective graduate students must also be challenged. As Christienna D. Fryar put it on Twitter, “U.S. academia is structured around assumption that you (grad student, adjunct/full-time professor) have constant access to family wealth.” A break in financial support for students moving from undergraduate to graduate education, for example, presumes quite a bit about the class of those students.

Moreover, Arner’s work shows how implicit, unacknowledged biases shape who gets interviews for tenure-track jobs, and especially who gets job offers. Her research instructs us to look to the MLA interview for clues to this embedded problem. Drawing on insights from a range of disciplines (including feminist theory and sociology) Arner argues that the structure of the interview process (short interviews) privileges certain demographics over others.

In 2014, she published “Working-Class Women at the MLA Interview.” The keyword here is “at.” That’s because the study shows how the physical presence of interviewees -- and the ways interviewers implicitly judge these presences -- effectively work to bar certain groups (in this case working-class women) from the tenure track at highly ranked universities and colleges.

I met Arner at this year’s MLA convention, where I asked her about the practical ramifications of her work for graduate students and for those who teach, administer and mentor in graduate programs.

Q: As your experience suggests, when it comes to tenure-track hires, we want to believe that we reward merit without paying attention to socioeconomic class.

A: That’s right -- class-based discrimination is a real blind spot. Blind spots like this rest on illusions about the relationship between class and education: for example, it’s an illusion that middle-classness is somehow conferred alongside a doctorate. And those blind spots stem from a lack of self-awareness on the part of middle-class scholars, who so often disavow the advantages that socioeconomic privilege has conferred on them.

Q. What would you say to hiring-committee members who look at the data but refuse to admit they are part of the system that reifies the disparities you’ve uncovered?

A: I would challenge the implicit criteria by which such a hiring committee member adjudicates candidates. For example, those scholars who complete the Ph.D. before they turn 30 are often understood to be more talented, ambitious and driven than those who complete their doctorates in their late 30s or beyond. However, that logic exemplifies what Pierre Bourdieu calls “the myth of precocity,” which conveniently elides the reality that familial funding is the foundational reason such students can finish earlier than others.

It’s a simple fact: students who attend the most celebrated colleges and universities are not the most talented and gifted scholars. Sociologists like Anne L. Mullen remind us that socioeconomic background determines, more than any other factor, who gets into the top institutions.

Q. You write passionately and convincingly about the challenges working-class women face at the MLA interview. Can you speak a bit more about how the bodies of those women are being read in these contexts?

A: The key idea here is that corporeal class markers are typically misread by interviewers. As Bourdieu argues, our bodily hexes are completely marked by class: the ways in which we sit, walk, gesture, emote, speak and wear our hair and garments are structured by our socioeconomic positions. Hiring committee members who have difficulty articulating why exactly a candidate seems to be a “poor fit” as a personality or “lacks professionalism” are usually unknowingly using class-based criteria, such as those outlined by Bourdieu (for example, regarding bodily hexes, class-based speech patterns, aesthetics and politics). I have successfully intervened in conversations with colleagues distributing awards to graduate students, when committee members were overvaluing class-based criteria (such as efficient academic timelines) and have moved the conversation to more relevant issues (such as background training).

Q: That anecdote reminds us that one solution would be to have more scholars with working-class backgrounds on admissions, hiring and promotion committees. But since your research suggests that they are typically being selected out of powerful positions in academe, and since the problems you’ve described are systemic, solutions are anything but easy. What would you say to your colleagues across the United States and Canada, especially those currently on search committees? What are some strategies you think search committees should adopt in the near term?

A: I would encourage committees to mobilize their training about sexism and racism in academe to think through classism in the professoriate. While racial, gendered and class-based oppressions are not any more isomorphic inside the academy than elsewhere in society, institutional structures of privilege often work similarly across these axes of discrimination.

I would remind my colleagues that good pedigree does not guarantee anything: there are strong and weak students in all doctoral programs.

And I would eliminate MLA interviews. In a half-hour interview, hiring committees learn much about a job candidate -- but not what they think they are learning. Instead, committees make determinations about a candidate’s gender, race, ethnicity, age, visible disabilities and socioeconomic position -- variables that do not indicate how well a scholar will teach or about the quality of the scholarship they will produce.

Instead of MLA interviews, a more equitable approach would be to ask the top 10 candidates for extensive material: multiple writing samples, a dissertation or book abstract, a statement about future research plans, syllabi and teaching evaluations. Based on the quality of the intellectual work, the pool could be narrowed to a handful of candidates to invite to campus. Because a candidate spends a day or two on campus, a working-class interviewee has a much better chance of ultimately winning over committee members, because they will be forced to listen to what the candidate has to say, rather than disqualifying a working-class contender within the first 10 minutes of a 30-minute interview because of a (largely unconscious) reading of her class codes.

Q: What words of advice would you share with, for example, a working-class woman on the job market?

A: Avoid internalizing failure. If you’re a working-class scholar who falls short of your career goals, remember that the tracking and the rewarding of different demographic groups in academe are overdetermined. Working-class contingent faculty members who teach at wealthier colleges and universities should avoid wasting a lot of time trying to win over tenure-stream colleagues, hoping that if tenure-track positions become available they would sincerely be allowed to compete for these posts. Such contingent faculty members would be better off investing their efforts in their publications.

I also would advise working-class Ph.D. holders that, although less prestigious, teaching at big state universities instead of private research universities can be a blessing, for there are many more working-class students and colleagues at such institutions. In such settings, working-class faculty members are typically subjected to less classism and would likely find it more rewarding to teach large numbers of their “peeps.” The downside of this distribution, though, is that these placement patterns reproduce a highly classed tier system.


James M. Van Wyck is a postdoctoral teaching fellow at Fordham University, where he also a core planning group member on Fordham’s NEH Next Generation Humanities Ph.D. project, “The ‘Living Humanities’ Ph.D. for the 21st Century.” Follow him on Twitter.


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