When George Orwell identified his family background as “lower-upper-middle class,” he wasn’t being facetious. It was a comment not just on British social hierarchy but on how that structure perpetuated itself -- through an anxious process of monitoring and policing the nuances of distinction, the markers of inclusion and exclusion at each level.
It’s a cliché that Americans tend to be clueless about such things, or at least as pointedly indifferent to them as circumstances permit. No other society has ever managed to convince itself so thoroughly, for so long, that social mobility is normative -- tending, as if by nature, mostly upward. Some of the people Jessi Streib interviewed for The Power of the Past: Understanding Cross-Class Marriages (Oxford University Press) were “visibly angry or tearful” when asked about class, “as they thought that the question implied not only differences but also statements about who was morally superior.”
What a contrast to the rather morbid preoccupation with calibrating status that Orwell describes! But the difference is not so complete as it first appears. Intense indignation and distress at being asked to think about one’s class background suggest it is a topic charged with feelings of embarrassment, frustration, anger, disgust and fear, to keep the list as short as possible. Orwell’s reflections on class find the same emotional elements, albeit combined in a different formula.
What happens to class differences within the crucible of romantic love is an old question for novelists, but Streib, an assistant professor of sociology at Duke University, takes a more analytical approach. She interviewed 32 married heterosexual couples in the United States in which one spouse came from a blue-collar family and the other from a white-collar family, plus another 10 couples for whom all the in-laws were from a white-collar background. Everyone interviewed was white and most were college graduates.
The homogeneity on these points was in part a function of who answered the initial call for interviews, but it had the advantage of limiting the number of variables in a relatively small pool of subjects.
The precise definition of class is a matter for dispute even among social theorists sharing the same general framework of analysis (the Marxist debates alone are voluminous), but Streib’s categories are pretty much vernacular. “White-collar-origin respondents are those that had fathers with bachelor’s or advanced degrees and who worked in professional or managerial jobs.” The blue-collar-origin participants “had fathers with at most a high-school diploma and who tended to work with their hands (though, of course, their jobs also often required mental work).” The mothers’ educational levels were almost always identical to those of their husbands.
The interview subjects themselves, whatever their parents’ educational and occupation level, fell into the white-collar category. Streib questioned each member of the couple separately and then together, covering not just their family backgrounds and biography but their attitudes and practices concerning money, career, child raising, housework and use of free time. The mixed-background couples tended to have met in college or at their workplaces -- in other words, in contexts where each person would understandably assume that the other occupied a white-collar status or was at least headed that way.
My impression from Streib’s biographical sketches is that during early phases of their relationships, mixed-class couples tended to think of differences in their background mainly in terms of family income. When describing his own class origins, Orwell wrote: “You notice that I define it in terms of money, because that is always the quickest way of making yourself understood.” So it is, but other aspects of class come into view only after spending some time with the other person’s family -- experiencing something of the world they grew up in, the attitudes and norms that shaped them.
Streib identifies two general patterns of value and behavior associated with the partners’ origins. Those who come from professional white-collar families exhibit what she calls a “managerial sensibility.” They tend “to plan, deliberate, mull over and organize their resources, their children and their daily lives,” while their spouses are prone to a “laissez-faire sensibility” and prefer “to feel free from self-constraint... to go with the flow and live in the moment.” (Carpe diem is a better characterization of it than laissez-faire, but que sera sera....)
Such broad generalizations are not easily distinguished from stereotypes -- and as someone who would fall into Streib’s blue-collar-origin cohort, I’ll point out that her “managerial sensibility” also exists in the lower orders, where it is known as the work ethic. In any event, The Power of the Past focuses largely on how managerial and laissez-faire sensibilities play out in the various domains of family life, and how couples come to understand the contrasts and strains.
The most interesting finding is that mixed-background spouses tend to be attracted to each another by personality traits missing from their own sensibility: the highly organized daughter of lawyers falls for the easygoing trucker’s son. Complications and conflicts inevitably ensue. Resolving or containing them is certainly possible, though it is much more complex and drawn-out a process than the romantic comedies would have you believe. (My white-collar-origin spouse would surely agree.)
The author’s insights are necessarily limited by the size and narrow demographics of her pool of subjects, but also by abundance of happy endings, or at least of lasting unions. Class conflicts can be resolved in good marriages -- but it doesn’t always work out that well. I don’t think Marx ever had divorce in mind when he referred to “the mutual ruin of the contending classes,” but the statistics imply that is the usual outcome.
The poster session is an important but usually humble component of an academic conference -- though you’d never know that from a promotional video for one held at the University of Oxford this month. The clip looks like the trailer for a sci-fi Hollywood blockbuster. The name of the conference, Force 2015, sounds like one, too.
Besides its snappy acronym, the Future of Research Communication and e-Scholarship group (“a community of scholars, librarians, archivists, publishers and research funders”) has a manifesto offering a comprehensive vision of post-Gutenbergian intellectual life. Issued in 2011, it forecasts “a future in which scientific information and scholarly communication more generally become part of a global, universal and explicit network of knowledge; where every claim, hypothesis, argument -- every significant element of the discourse -- can be explicitly represented, along with supporting data, software, workflows, multimedia, external commentary and information about provenance. In this world of networked knowledge objects, it would be clear how the entities and discourse components are related to each other, including relationships to previous scholarship; learning about a new topic means absorbing networks of information, not individually reading thousands of documents....”
The new Web site 101 Innovations in Scholarly Communication may not have been intended as an interim report on how that future is shaping up, but it has the features of one even so. It’s the online complement to the Force 2015 poster of the same name, prepared by Jeroen Bosman and Bianca Kramer, both from Utrecht University Library in the Netherlands. (Bosman is the subject librarian in the geosciences; Kramer, in the life sciences and medicine.)
The most striking element of both the poster and the site is a multicolored circular chart that looks something like a zodiac or gaming wheel. (See bottom of this article for a larger version than appears on top.) It flashes by in the opening seconds of the aforementioned video, too fast for the viewer to notice that it is divided into six sectors: discovery, analysis, writing, publication, outreach and assessment. There are little logos in each, representing digital tools and products. You find the Google Docs icon in “analysis,” for example, and Zotero in “writing,” while academia.edu appears in “outreach.”
It’s the Great Cycle of Research Life, so to speak -- beginning with, and ever returning to, the zone marked “discovery.” It would be possible to argue with how sequential the process is in real life, and I’m not persuaded that some of the icons fit perfectly into their assigned slots. But another element of the chart’s design adds to its value by conveying the pace of change. The circle actually consists of concentric circles, marking off five-year intervals between 2000 and 2015. The location of an icon indicates when it came into use, with a very few, in the chart's core, having been around way back in the 1990s.
After contemplating the 101 Innovations mandala for a while, I contacted the site's creators in hopes of understanding its mysteries. At a poster session, there’s usually someone around to explain things only implicit in the poster itself, which can otherwise be puzzling.
That’s true especially of the diagrams making up the site’s “workflow pages.” Each resembles an extremely simple flowchart: a series of boxes, representing the six phases of research, with various logos plugged in. (Rather than endure a thousand words of description, just go have a look.) The charts also had labels such as “traditional” and “innovative.”
The parts each made sense, but the whole seemed opaque. Kramer elucidated things in an e-mail discussion, with some of her responses prepared jointly with her collaborator, Bosman. The site represents the tip of an iceberg: they have collected a database “contain[ing] details of some 15 attributes of over 400 innovative tools and sites,” most of which didn’t make it to the poster or Web site. “We are curious [about] the range of innovation,” they told me, “not the entire range of products per se.”
My best guess had been that the workflow charts might have been intended as recommendations of how researchers could combine the available digital tools. That, it turns out, was wide of the mark. The charts are heuristic rather than prescriptive.
“None of the workflow charts are meant as templates for researchers to adopt,” Kramer and Bosman explained, “more as primers for them to think about the tools they use and the type of workflow that best characterizes the way they work.” The charts provide “a starting point for discussions with researcher groups, such as graduate students, postdocs and faculty,” in order to determine existing practices and developing needs.
The goal is to elicit users’ “reasons for choosing specific tools -- what factors influence their decisions to switch to new tools and incorporate them” in their work. “[W]e plan to have a closer look at the coverage of digital humanities tools in our database, and look at disciplinary variations in our interpretations of most important developments, opportunities, etc.”
Bosman and Kramer also developed a typology of scholarly workflows, ranging from the neo-Luddite to the way-early adopter. “[W]e defined 'traditional' as a type of workflow that essentially would not have altered much from that of the print age, ‘modern’ as making use of online tools that enable researchers to consume information/functionality (roughly Web 1.0), ‘innovative’ as using more recent tools that enable online discussion, collaboration and active contribution (roughly Web 2.0) and ‘experimental’ as using tools that are currently being developed and have yet to establish themselves (‘bleeding edge’).”
The charts mention “virtual suites,” with no explanation. That turns out to be a reference to the shape of things to come: integrated packages of tools covering every stage of the research project, from brainstorm through the publication of scholarship and the archiving of data.
“My impression,” wrote Kramer, “is that publishers/organizations are working more and more towards providing tools for all stages of the workflow, and will probably start marketing them as such in the future. It is of course up to any individual researcher to decide whether she/he would want to use such a suite in its entirety, but it seems to be to the benefit of the publisher to offer the possibility, and convince institutions to buy into the whole package deal. Such developments would encourage siloing of workflows, with potential limited interoperability with other tools and thus lock in to a specific publisher/organization. This is not necessarily a good thing.”
Agreed. The next step would be for researchers to sign over their own brains to the company providing the suite, which seems like carrying the principle of intellectual property altogether too far.
“On the other hand,” Kramer pointed out, “we found that many new tools have been developed by researchers at the Ph.D./postdoc level (interestingly, many of them biomedical or bioinformatics scientists) who are frustrated with the current solutions available to them. Another trend we observe is that once these innovations prove useful and popular, they are often bought by large publishers.”
So in the foreseeable future “there will remain a mixture of new, independent innovations and consolidation of existing tools, often in a publisher's ‘suite.’”
The alternative would be a large-scale return to paper and ink. Some of us wouldn’t mind, but nobody should count on it.
Shakespeare penned All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players for Jaques, that greatest of cynics among all the characters in all his plays. Touchstone may be the Clown in As You Like It, but Jaques is the fool. He opines that every man enacts seven roles throughout a lifetime: infant, student, lover, soldier, justice, pantaloon, and second childishness, followed by oblivion. I risk playing the greater fool here by attempting to extrapolate from his analogy: All the world’s a classroom / And all the emeriti and emeritae merely players.
Most college teachers enact four roles throughout a professional lifetime. I don’t refer to the four ranks of career advancement — up the formal ranks to full professor/ I refer to a progression of relationships between professor and student. Ranks and relationships measure different kinds of development. Ranks are professional; relationships are personal. Ranks are institutional; relationships are organic. Ranks are rewarded; relationships are rewarding, at least potentially so. The Four Ages of a Professor — I’m in the fourth now -- are older sibling, friend, parent, and grandparent. (I first heard these categories in conversation with John M. Phelan, professor emeritus in media studies at Fordham University, and I use them here with his permission.)
To play the role of Older Sibling one needs to have begun teaching at a comparatively young age, not much older than the students themselves. Older sister and older brother are conventional characters in a familiar societal script, even for a person who has never played either one biologically. A young professor’s first relationship with students, especially if that experience is while still a graduate student, is that of older sibling, deriving from their proximate ages, but not solely from that. It derives, too, from there being so few other roles on offer. Bigger, more prestigious, parts may open up later (e.g., senior mentor, disciplinary historian, methodological expert, or recognized authority within a particular field), but these are rarely available to the novice.
Young professors and their students share a generational familiarity, possessing common knowledge and similar experience. They are likely to speak the same vernacular, listen to the same music, and view the same videos. As well, they probably use the same technologies and participate in the same social media. They share a familial shorthand that is both inclusionary and exclusionary. Their code is inbred naturally, while it must be learned fitfully, if at all, by others.
The role of older sibling presents many opportunities for teaching and learning that will never return again, no matter how long a career may extend. Older brother and sister are uniquely suited to initiate younger siblings into family ways and mores, values and traditions, taboos and penalties. The cultural norms of higher education are a young professor’s hand-me-downs, becoming the student’s dress-for-success. A conspiracy of kinship can reveal the secrets of preparation and research, practice and repetition, rubrics and metrics. Sibling intimacy teaches rites of initiation much more effectively than can parental authority.
There are dangers, too, in the First Age of a Professor. The power associated with birth order may degenerate into authoritarianism. Younger siblings recognize abusive overreach immediately and are likely to respond by banding together in defiant self-defense. Domination by an older sibling incites resentment. Supportiveness, on the other hand, inspires gratitude, even admiration.
The First Age of a Professor accords educational possibilities that ought not to be missed. Unlike the sibling relationships in biology, which last a lifetime, those in pedagogy are short-lived. Soon enough, a young college teacher will have to leave them behind.
The Second Age of a Professor begins when identification morphs into friendship. Being a friend is the most complex connection a professor can make with a student. It’s also the most fraught. Delights abound; so do temptations. Authority blurs; so may boundaries. Mentorship emerges; so can intimacy. In the extreme, this last can cross professional, legal and ethical lines. Friendships with students develop during the most stressful years of a young teacher’s life, namely, the probationary period leading up to tenure.
The professor as friend, as with older sibling, presents unique opportunities for teaching and learning. Hallway exchanges democratize classroom hierarchies. Cups of coffee encourage free-flowing conversations. Critical vocabulary pops up in co-curricular discussions. Intellectual themes blend with departmental gossip. A professor may befriend undergraduate and graduate students alike, the latter group multiplying contexts for interaction. Evening seminars spill over into social settings. Personal conversation inflates into critical dialogue. Squeezing the extra chair into an office allows for group interaction, as well as one-to-one consultation.
The interests of professor and student are not identical, of course, but they are analogous. The student wishes to produce a video that will go viral on YouTube. The professor wishes to produce a scholarly article that will generate a wide readership in print. Students wish to accumulate likes on Facebook. Professors wish to accumulate kudos in peer review.
Most friendships, whether inside or outside the academy, involve a measure of self-disclosure. Students need a sympathetic listener. Professors, too, benefit from a student sounding board, especially when conversation with colleagues becomes awkward during the year of tenure review.
After receiving tenure, oddly and abruptly, friendship itself gets promoted into parenthood, the Third Age of a Professor. Friendships needn’t end, to be sure. Many survive for years, even decades, after a student’s graduation and a professor’s retirement. Still, tenure changes things in unforeseen ways.
With tenure, one begins to feel like a full-fledged faculty member, assuming, along with departmental colleagues, a co-parenting authority. This does not apply solely to relations with students. It translates, also, into proprietorship over course curricula, degree requirements, and governance procedures. The newly tenured professor is expected to take on a more public persona within the discipline, stand for elected office within a professional association, perhaps, or become the editor of an academic journal.
Like all parents, tenured professors set the rules, control the resources, distribute the rewards, and dole out the punishments. Most consequentially, they become narrators of the family’s story — casting its roles, orchestrating its plots, underscoring its themes, and targeting its audiences. They enjoy access to influential committees, central administrators, and disciplinary gatekeepers. In departmental governance, they have a vote like everybody else, but they also expect a say.
Tenured faculty members shoulder a parental responsibility for a department’s success or failure (i.e., its internal and external reputations). They influence departmental hiring, faculty assignments and, ultimately, the awarding (or not) of tenure and promotion. In other words, parent is the most powerful role accorded to a faculty member throughout an academic career. It’s the longest in duration, too. The obvious downside to this age is its nearly unavoidable presumption of entitlement that can undermine collegiality, especially with junior colleagues.
The Fourth Age of a Professor is that of grandparent. The divide between parent and grandparent is generational, naturally, but its transition cannot be marked by a specific date. It is felt more as an emotional realignment resulting from the upward push of an oncoming generation of faculty members. One isn’t being pushed out necessarily, but one is certainly being pushed up. This is a good and necessary thing in order to accommodate change.
Grandparents teach differently than parents do. The professor-as-grandfather or professor-as-grandmother feels a warm enthusiasm for the intellectual growth of students. One is less judgmental, less harried, and less hurried. This more relaxed attitude may manifest in various ways, not least being higher grades.
Think of a youngster learning to ride a bike. An older sibling instructs. A friend criticizes. A parent pushes from behind and then, at some unexpected moment, lets go. Grandparents, on the other hand, approach the problem from another perspective, closer to that of a cheerleader. “You can do it. You can do it. I know you can.” Verbal enthusiasm may be just the thing to inspire confidence and boost achievement.
Non-judgmental encouragement aids in the acquisition of knowledge and skills. A pat on the back assists in the mastery of difficult vocabulary associated with unfamiliar theory. A few students may take advantage of what they perceive to be a professor’s laissez faire vulnerability, but their number is surprisingly small. Most will be grateful for the increased self-confidence. This will be helpful as they proceed through their education.
The smart grandparent, regardless of family, stays out of a parent’s way. In a university setting, this may mean giving up a favorite seminar, stepping aside from a powerful committee, or saying "no" to another term as department chair. Such opportunities belong to the next generation and are no longer one’s responsibility.
My analogy to Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man is inexact, of course. I have passed over, for instance, Jaques’ final pronouncement about oblivion. The Four Ages of a Professor — older sibling, friend, parent, and grandparent — come replete with their own rewards that go far beyond the satisfactions of emeritus or emerita status. The fulfilling relationships of a long career, especially those with students, will provide whatever succor a professor can find against oblivion.
James VanOosting is a professor and writer-in-residence at Fordham University. He has published 10 books and many articles.