April 30, 2009

Kenneth Oldfield and Richard Greggory Johnson met at a meeting of the American Society for Public Administration, and became friends, in part because of their shared working class backgrounds. Oldfield, professor emeritus of public administration at the University of Illinois at Springfield, is straight. Johnson, assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Vermont, is gay. They drew on their shared and different experiences to edit a new book of essays, Resilience: Queer Professors From the Working Class, released by the state University of New York Press. The two co-editors responded to questions about the book.

Q: How do you see the categories of being from a working class background and being gay in academe being similar or different?

Johnson: Queers and WCAs [working class academics], which I’m using here to connote straight professors of poverty and working class origins, share the challenge of being “other,” meaning members of each group violate America’s norms about what should be. These individuals are expected to conceal or downplay their respective sexual orientations and class backgrounds and not respond to direct or indirect prejudicial actions or comments directed against them or others like them. Some historians mark The Stonewall “Riots” as the official start of the gay pride and gay awareness movements. These events in 1969 enhanced the queer community’s commitment to “We are not going to take it anymore,” meaning an insistence on resisting prejudice and violence directed against us because of our sexual orientation. In 1975, the American Psychiatric Association dropped “homosexuality” from its official list of emotional and mental disorders. Three years later the American Psychological Association supported this action. The LGBT community has built upon these earlier triumphs to become a growing presence on many campuses. Not only are there Safe Zones and an increasing number of course offerings relating to sexual orientation and queer studies, gays have formed campus organizations and have been successfully advancing their interests. They have taken the previously derisive term “queers” and reinterpreted it to mean solidarity and strength. This is not to say the LGBT community is free of obstacles, but at the time of Stonewall, all these recent reforms would have been rejected outright on most campuses. Obviously, there is a long way to go, but there is reason to hope this ongoing movement toward greater self-respect and equality based on sexual orientation will continue and even accelerate. Anyone who gives the stories in Resilience a fair hearing will understand why this campaign for queer rights is integral to fostering a diverse learning environment on our campuses.

Oldfield: I share my co-editor’s optimism about the growing acceptance of queers on campus. I am less sanguine about signs of reducing class bias in higher education. Class, especially discussions about the importance of class origins and inherited advantages by birth, is seldom mentioned among academics. When the topic arises, it is usually only presented in the abstract. Rarely, if ever, does the discussion or analysis address the particular ways class status plays out on individual campuses. This oversight is particularly puzzling because research by Bowen, Kurzweil, and Tobin, and Carnevale and Rose shows at many major universities the percent of students of humble origins is disproportionately small and declining. About 10 years ago, Finkelstein, Seal, and Schuster warned that “academic careers are increasingly attracting entrants from higher socioeconomic backgrounds.” A 2004 report from the American Political Science Association’s Task Force on Inequality and American Democracy showed America’s decades-long effort at redistributing wealth upward has made it increasingly difficult for working class parents to send their children through four year colleges. As long as class remains a taboo subject -- in the closet, if you will -- in most parts of the academy, it will be impossible to fully appreciate the unearned advantages that flow to certain children simply by the circumstance of birth. This is particularly significant because of how these bequests contradict the ideals of equality and fairness that purportedly distinguish America from all other nations.

Q: Academe has a reputation for being among the more progressive parts of society with regard to sexual orientation – and some references in the book suggest that academe is less tolerant of people who didn't come from families of educated professionals. What do you make of the bias against the working class that comes up in essays?

Oldfield: There are several explanations for this bias. The overriding problem is the insistence that America offers endless opportunities for upward social mobility. The prevailing fable is often expressed in anecdotes like the one about the daughter of a single father with an eighth grade education who shines shoes in an airport for a living. The myth is that with enough hard work the daughter can academically outcompete the child of two medical doctors. While this happens ever so rarely, we thrive on stories about people who struggled all the way up from the bottom. We seldom consider the disproportionate percent of “successful” people who “struggled all the way from the top,” at least not in that light. This latter reference includes people who won the race because of the colossal head start they gained just by having college educated and higher income earning parents and, therefore, access to the social, economic, and cultural capital commonly associated with academic success. The mobility myth emphasizes exceptions not averages. Class inequalities mostly get a pass in everyday academic conversations.

A corollary of this folklore is that it encourages us to assume that those lacking the resources normally associated with becoming a college professor chose their working class stations because they didn’t have the grit and gumption necessary to earn the requisite educational credentials. We are supposedly a society without classes, but we frown on the working class because of its place in the hierarchy. Ideology makes for contradictory bedfellows. For years I sought to devise an efficient and effective way to help students understand the question of unearned advantages, not an answer to the question, mind you, but the question itself.

Here’s a paraphrased abridgment of a scenario I developed to portray this situation: One hundred people are enrolled in an undergraduate college class. At the first meeting, the instructor explains that each student’s grade will be determined in part by how the last seven people who sat in his or her seat performed in the course. The average scores on 12 quizzes and 3 exams will each be worth 50 percent of that term’s overall average. The final grade for the course will be determined by combining each student’s class average with those of the last seven students who occupied that seat. Last semester, one student achieved perfect scores on the quizzes and exams but got a C in the course because she inherited poor marks. Another student had a C average in the course but received an A because of the high scores he inherited.

The cognitive dissonance this simulation provokes helps students better understand the question of unequal starts and that the belief in significant upward social mobility likely entails more than just simply Horatio Algerism. We overlook real life conditions that we would never tolerate if the matter involved something as simple as assigning a course grade. The grading scenario and the ensuing discussion helps students appreciate why various studies have shown that our formal education system often reinforces the status quo, versus being the Great Leveler our folklore insists it is. This understanding helps students see why the published research demonstrates that those of working class origins are significantly underrepresented at many American universities, both as students and faculty.

Q: What are some of the ways you have experienced the biased or condescending attitudes described by essays in the book?

Oldfield: I will mention three personal examples of class bias and condescension. The first involves colleagues who dismissively reason that “working class academics” is oxymoronic. They insist, “But that was then, this is now.” It’s as though once you become a professor recollections about large parts of how you grew up go down The Memory Hole, an expectation applied to no other group I know of. Instead of suffering amnesia, as the Resilience authors exemplify, I learned to navigate different cultures by maintaining the old and learning the new. This biculturalism is why WCAs often mention how our class origins still profoundly affect our lives, both inside and outside the academy.

A second illustration involves the unbefitting feeling I get when I hear non-WCAs discussing how as youngsters they vacationed at the beach with their parents, shopped for the right college, or are helping their children increase their odds of being accepted at the right university (i.e. preparing them to get high scores on standardized entrance examinations and building a strong high school resume by participating in formally recognized and so called important extracurricular activities, including, among others, plays, the debate team, the tennis team, and doing volunteer work). Why don’t more university admissions committees extend the same level of recognition and respect to applicants who worked at fast food restaurants or gas stations during high school? In the education game, it helps considerably if your parents know how to “play college.”

A third class bias is one that I only fully appreciated after I finished my doctorate. It involves the information I wasn’t given in all my years of schooling, or received only in passing, as if it were not that important. Most of my formal education about class involved omissions, which still seems the case in too much of higher education. I was never encouraged to appreciate how much America is a class-based society and, therefore, the profound role class and class origins play in determining favorable life outcomes, including recognizing the strong relationship between family income and standardized test scores (ACT and SAT, for example), the number and condition of teeth you carry into adulthood, longevity, whether you smoke cigarettes, how much you travel outside your region or country, how many books your parents made available to you during your youth, whether and where you attended college, and so on, ad nausea. I relish the detailed instruction I received about other demographic groups and the hardships they faced because of prejudice and the consequences of structural inequalities.

Unfortunately, in all of my years of schooling, I was never encouraged to develop a class consciousness, especially one involving the consequences of unearned advantages and how class inequalities permeate our everyday lives. I mostly gained this understanding accidentally and on my own by discovering works such as Knupfer’s “Portrait of the Underdog” and Ryan and Sackrey’s Strangers in Paradise: Academics from the Working Class. Until I read Ryan and Sackrey’s book, I thought I was the only professor who had flunked first grade. My academic life would have probably gone in a radically different direction had I been hearten to really understand class in my early college days. Incidentally, I don’t necessarily blame any of my college professors for this omission problem, as they too were a product of our formal education system. Nevertheless, it is time we break this cycle by emphasizing the significant role social class plays in distributing opportunities and responsibilities.

Q: Depending on the age of the authors in the book, some of them are describing situations that date back a few years. Do you think the issues are different for academics who are gay and/or working class who start their careers today?

Johnson: Academics report that it is easier today being gay and out about their sexual orientation, at least at more liberal colleges and universities. A few authors in Resilience speak to this point, although as Angelia Wilson’s chapter shows, America has a long way to go versus British universities on this issue. Being LGBT at certain U.S. schools can lower one’s chances of gaining tenure or promotion if your primary research focus is queer scholarship. Some senior faculty and administrators consider these publications and conference presentations faddish and unimportant. Moreover, some Georgia legislators recently proposed eliminating the jobs of professors who teach about queer issues. Finally, circumstances are probably least favorable for out LGBT faculty at particular religious-affiliated colleges and universities. Professors there know to be silent or VERY discreet about their sexual orientation.

Oldfield: Conditions for WCAs starting their academic careers today are as bad, if not worse, than they were a few years back. As noted, the research shows that the upward redistribution of wealth and other factors have contributed to a declining population of WCAs and working class students at four year colleges. Candler, Johnson, and I have published papers, both individually and as co-authors, showing how our discipline, public administration, pays little attention to class inequalities, notwithstanding its well publicized commitment to diversity and social equity. These research findings and other studies about the relationship between class and education, especially the findings of the American Political Science Association’s Task Force on Inequality and American Democracy, prompted me to survey the top political science and public administration programs asking them whether they, first, solicit information about the class origins of their MA students and, second, weigh these facts for diversity purposes. Despite all the hand wringing by some researchers about growing inequities in American higher education based on class origins, the evidence showed that none of the responding programs actively sought this background information for affirmative action purposes.

I doubt my findings are anomalistic. I would probably find similar results for most other graduate disciplines. The fact the data needed to test this proposition are not readily available exemplifies more “politics by omission.” A final illustration involves another failure to notice. If I want to gauge a certain institution’s faculty composition by ethnicity and gender, these statistics are usually readily available. This is good because it allows policy makers and other interested parties to assess whether individual universities are achieving the diversity ends they proclaim are integral to quality learning. But what if I want to see the percent of faculty who are first-generation college at some school? I know of no university that gathers and publicizes this information, notwithstanding higher education’s image as a cutting edge enterprise. Certain schools collect these data from their undergraduates for diversity purposes, but why not for their professors? How can we have socioeconomic integration among university faculty if we cannot monitor the results of a school’s personnel policies?

The subtle lesson for today’s newly minted WCAs is simple: If we don’t count that part of your life, that part of your life doesn’t count. Can we ever foster class consciousness if we deny the importance of a variable that so profoundly shapes our formal education system and, thus, faculty composition? Meanwhile, the data show we already have a well-established, class-based affirmative action faculty hiring plan in place. Only now, the lifelong social sorting system heavily favors those born of higher class origins. They are called classrooms for good reason.

Q: Your introduction notes that many colleges explicitly seek diversity in their student bodies and faculty based on race, ethnicity and gender – but not on sexuality or class. Do you think they should? What should colleges be doing to make academics of all class backgrounds and sexualities more welcome?

Johnson: If higher education is sincere in what it says about how diversity enhances the learning environment, efforts at achieving a more representative faculty based on sexual orientation is certainly consistent with this objective.

Oldfield: As previously noted, some campuses are already seeking greater student diversity based on class origins. The University of Michigan’s Law School application asks students about their class backgrounds. Various books and articles offer evidence, a rationale, and the legal context for these affirmative action efforts. American universities have yet to demonstrate a similar commitment to faculty diversity based on class origins. I have published papers explaining why the diversity rationale for enrolling more working class students applies equally well to professors. These articles detail how schools can implement class-based faculty diversity hiring policies. The papers also address the red herring argument that class is impossible to define. I show that this contention fails on at least three counts.

First, universities are already using class for student diversity ends, as efforts by the University of Michigan Law School and other places demonstrate. Second, America has a long history of defining class for policy ends. Food Stamps, Medicaid, need based financial aid, school lunch programs for low income students, Upward Bound, TRIO, and countless other programs exemplify this point. Although we seldom call them class policies, they are. Third, researchers have published innumerable refereed articles using class as a variable. They don’t all define the term identically, but that’s hardly surprising, any more than how words such as marriage, race, ethnicity, or disability are operationalized differently depending on time and place. How is defining class more difficult than establishing thresholds for “free speech,” “due process,” “equal protection,” and myriad other vague terms we delimit every day for policy making? Moreover, experience shows that the definitions of these terms evolve and can vary widely across political jurisdictions. Administration is about drawing lines, as happens when professors allocate grades, devise accreditation standards, and make course assignments.

If we can use these and other theoretical concepts, only a lack of political will prevents us from achieving greater class diversity among faculty. In pursuit of these diversity practices, we must, in turn, devote considerable resources to guaranteeing that WCAs receive the mentoring and support associated with academic success. These accommodating endeavors should begin even before these individuals reach campus to start their teaching careers. Eventually, WCAs should establish their own sections within national organizations to network with other WCAs, study how class operates in their respective disciplines, and other worthy goals. The Working Class Academics annual conferences and their listserv can help in this regard.

Finally, universities should direct more resources toward raising the class consciousness of faculty. These efforts should be widespread, ranging from studying how the costs of textbooks and supplies might affect a student’s choice of academic major, to measuring graduation rates at individual campuses depending on class background, to ... you name it. “Ignorance” doesn’t necessarily mean I’m not smart. Instead, it means I’m unintentionally overlooking something. Implementing class based affirmative action for recruiting faculty will go a long way toward overcoming our ignorance about how class plays out in the academy and, for that matter, in our off-campus lives as well. If successful, this integrative campaign will guarantee that not only are WCAs more fairly represented in higher education, but that class consciousness will be accepted as a “should be,” versus its current status as “other.”

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