Class and Academia

by Shaker mouthyb

I have read, various places, that the actual percentage of people who manage to class-climb is very small. I believe it. I am a graduate student at a state university in NM, one of the poorest states in the US, and a teacher of intro English comp classes. I see that slim percentage echoed daily in my classes. The vast majority of the students in my classes are the children of the middle class, which they make evident in the assertions they make in our argument exercises: if the poor weren't so lazy, they wouldn't be poor; the poor ruin the health care system and take advantage of it. They also make it evident in spurious claims of equality of access to everything from education to jobs, even in this climate. I try to play devil's advocate for those kids, because many of them have never heard any other perspective on class and race and wealth. I tell myself that I make them better arguers by exposing them to the oppositions to their arguments, and I hope I have made them better people.

Some of them tell me, at the end of the semester, that I have made a difference to them. I have been told that this was the first time they actually had to work. I had a *headdesk* moment when I read the following in a student's end of the semester memo: he told me he's finally writing, instead of pasting content from google and re-phrasing it to avoid plagiarism. As a tall, good looking white boy from a wealthy family, he'd never had anyone check up on his work, and he was contemptuous of the whole system because of it. He spent the entire semester trying to flirt with me, because, as far as I could tell, education was not about learning for him; it was about being forced to sit in a classroom and entertain himself using others, typically women. I can only hope feeling like he had to work is a sensation which sticks with him.

The poor kids, the first-time college attendees and the kids from bad school districts, are also obvious to me, even though there are not many of them in my classes. They are understandably hesitant to participate in discussions. Many of them have problems with the kinds of work I'm asking them to do because they have not, in their K-12 experiences, been asked to do these kinds of things before. I often hear, in meetings, my fellow TAs give up on them because they are 'stupid.' Because it's 'not our job to re-do their K-12 education.' I am afraid for those students, that they will get the message and leave.

In the last three semesters of teaching at the university, I've had first year students describe to me, in regular papers and personal narratives, having their teachers show them movies all semester instead of teach in an AP English course, being sent to year-long suspension in high school for talking back to a teacher who was, at least by their explanations, treating them as if they were stupid. I've had students describe being pushed by athletics coaches to nearly collapsing of heat exhaustion or watching other students collapse and be sent to the hospital in the name of sports success—sports was the only thing which was going to propel them out of their neighborhoods. That is what they were told at school, when they failed at tasks they were not prepared to accomplish, what they saw on TV, what some of them were told at home. I read those personal essays and cry. I rage and pace my house.

I scrabble to help those kids, with the visible and invisible social requirements of education. I tell them that these things are just a part of their lives, that they are only a role which can be put aside when it is not needed, so that they are not swallowed up by the life they are supposed to have had. I ache for them and try over and over to encourage them to write about those moments in their education, to tell them that these things are worthy of being given voice. I am afraid for them because I know what is waiting for them in academia.

I am afraid for them because I am a poor kid, myself.

This spring, I sat in my dissertation director's office. He was looking over a nonfiction piece I wrote for my dissertation about how it is I came to be in college. In the piece, I write about child abuse, about being homeless, about running from a pimp in the neighborhoods I couch-surfed around, and about being one of 'those girls' and 'those people' in the classroom. I write about listening to students from middle class homes unwittingly characterize me as stupid, defective, lazy as they talk about the characters in literature, or about politics, and about pushing on past the terrible burden of self-doubt those comments put on my shoulders. He put my story down and looked at me.

Then he told me it would be easier on me if I'd just stop talking about all that stuff. He compared me to another student he knew from his involvement in the BA/MD program, a student who had learned not to talk about it. He told me she got on much better for not talking about it. I spent the rest of the meeting trying very hard not to start screaming. This man is the only person who is willing to look at my dissertation, and so far he has told me not to write about nearly everything I've turned into him.

He accused me of trying to perform a literary hatchet job on my parents, when I talk about the abuse. He wants me to talk about what's good about my parents, because no one is that bad.

My fellow students have told me that I am inventing the contents of my dissertation, because no one's life is that way. Because bad things only happen to people who invite them, or because everyone knows that the police always respond to calls on time, because men don't really beat women that often and everyone's family loves them, without question. Admitting my mental illness elicits charges that my account of events is irretrievably unreliable.

A few of the male students in graduate school, after reading one of my essays on trying to construct a sexual ethos after being abused, have gone on to lecture me on what's wrong with girls like me—or made a pass at me, as if talking about sexuality is my attempt to make them notice me. I talk about being used; they want to use me. I am damaged, and they want to get a piece of what's left.

I have chosen to keep talking and writing about it, to wear my identity every single damn day in an open fashion, which I am often told is obnoxious, mean, and asking for trouble. I wear it for my poor students, I wear it for all 'those girls' and 'those people.' And I tell myself that I am breaking ground for all the other women in academia who I have talked to, who have chosen to be lacquered over because the harassment is so very bad, and because you are dependent on the people around you for professional contacts and referrals.

I am risking my future jobs to do this because I have few friends among my fellow students, and getting a job in academia is often about networking. I comment about class, about gender, about the assumptions in other students' work because they need to know what they are doing. They're teaching here, and I need them to know what they're doing to their students because I'm afraid they don't see it. They view me as a trouble-maker in return.

The comments I have received from faculty have run the negative gamut as well. I have been told that I like to piss people off and that I lied about my experiences. I've lost count of how many times my critiques of my parents, of society, and of the behavior of privilege have been dismissed as motivated by revenge, not concern and fear for others. One of my professors suggested that I drop out and save everyone the trouble, and another told me that I shouldn't have had my children if I wanted to have fun as a graduate student, if I wanted to go be social.

My experience with academia is primarily one of being viewed as troubling and obnoxious.

If only I'd stop bringing in things like gender, or class, or my experiences, and allow myself to be lacquered over with a veneer of the apathy masquerading as middle-class civility, I'd get on just fine in my classes. And in that way I'm lucky. If I keep my mouth shut, cover my tattoos and smile more (I've lost count of how many times I've been told to smile, or been told to be grateful I, the kind of person I am, made it to grad school), I'd pass for what I'm not.

I'd pass for another homogenously successful college graduate. If it wasn't possible for me to do that, I'd never have made it through the beauty contest of getting into grad school. I am grateful for my ability to understand esoteric literature theory, for the terrible toughness which is the legacy of being a homeless kid, and for the privilege that my pale skin and my cis gender afford me, even as I challenge the system that privileges those things. Without them, I would never have made it this far.

My director refers to me as the biggest cat person he's ever met. By this, he means he doesn't understand why I don't seem to care, why I don't bend with that pressure to conform. I've written him several defenses of my choices, disguised as personal essays. What he doesn't understand, what the faculty and many of my fellow students don't seem to understand is that I do care. God, do I care. I care for those poor kids, for my fellow academics who are dying under that lacquer. I care for everyone who has come to an education and been told they had to have a makeover first.

I care enough to be myself in the face of pressure not to be.

Doing so means risking poor job contacts, possibly talking my way out of a letter of recommendation, no less a good job; it means listening to a lot of insulting and aggravating commentary. The pressure to suppress my true self is always there, hovering alongside my resentment that I am expected to choose, that my poor students are expected to choose, between success and self.

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