On the Other Side of What Tracks? The missing discussion of social class in the academy

Deborah Warnock
Department of Sociology, University of Louisville

Working-class Academics: Theories, Mythologies, Realities

[1] During my junior year of high school I starred in the Neil Simon musical Little Me. Playing the part of Belle Schlumpfert, a poor girl with aspirations for a better life, I sang about longing for life "On the Other Side of the Tracks," trading my opening costume of rags for a ball gown in the final act. Just like Belle, I was consumed with plans for a better life. In high school I lived with my younger sister and parents, a maintenance man and a grocery store cashier, in our single-wide trailer. We lived on the older side of a large trailer park in Florida, composed of two tracts of land, which were divided by a two-lane road. While we were not the poorest family in the trailer park, we were by no means the most well-off either. Driving through the newer side of the park, we actively coveted the newer double-wide trailers, even attending open houses at times to marvel at the size and sparkle of the manufactured homes. Despite these fervent dreams of double-wides, we were not able to afford one. My parents still live in the single-wide trailer in which I was raised, its floors moldy and rotting, the whole structure sighing heavily into the ground.

[2] When I was a teenager living there, I was obsessed with getting out. I was ashamed that we lived there and tired of being called "trailer trash" and "white trash." I wanted something better. I wanted to get away. I started working when I was 14, saved up money, and bought my first car for $500 before I even turned 16. On my 16th birthday, my mom drove me to the DMV so I could take the test and get my license. All I wanted was to get away and out, as far away as I possibly could. I was tired of living a suffocating and uncertain life. My parents fought hard and often about the lack of money. I felt trapped by the conflict inside and outside of the house. The fighting extended from many households into the streets with frustrated teenagers making their status in the neighborhood known through the language of physical combat. Look at someone the wrong way and you were next. I spent my teen years avoiding conflict as best I could, and dreaming about getting out.

[3] Because I loved to read and loved school, getting out to me meant going to college. And not just any college. I wanted to go to an elite school, live the American Dream, make a name for myself. I devoured college brochures and stole time at the bookstore where I worked, reading the Princeton Review Guide to the Best Colleges. I made copious lists of schools with admissions criteria and "hots and nots" copied from this book. I worked to maintain a 4.0 GPA, determined that the only way I could obtain admission to one of these schools was to be valedictorian. It felt like a constant lottery, these years. I was bubbling in my chosen numbers, hoping that my ticket would turn out a winner; but, because of our financial situation, I was all too aware that, even if I were to gain admission, I might not be able to go to any of these schools. The stress and determination were almost all-consuming. I remember crying inconsolably at many points in high school during moments of doubt. Could I get out? Would I get out?

[4] Ultimately, I applied to six schools, all of which were more or less random choices. I applied to Harvard, because that was the ultimate; Amherst, because an ex-boyfriend had a friend who had gone there and liked it; Vassar, because of the theater program and its proximity to New York City; Sarah Lawrence, because that's where my hero, Alice Walker, had gone; Rollins, the local liberal arts college; and the University of Florida, the state flagship. The only college that had come to speak to my high-poverty school was the local community college, the representative of which told me I would never be able to afford a four-year college. I mailed my envelopes and crossed my fingers.

[5] I remember opening the envelope declaring my admission to Vassar in our kitchen at home. When I shared with my parents that I had gotten in, my dad replied, "We can't pay for you to go." Of course, I knew this. The twisted thing about college admissions is that kids like me who are relying solely on financial aid awards to determine their futures truly don't know if the admissions promise is reliable until we receive our financial aid letter. That takes another month or so. So, I waited. While I waited, I discovered that Harvard had rejected me, Amherst had waitlisted me, and the other three schools had all accepted me. Again, none of this meant anything until I knew how much aid I would get. Finally, the letters of aid arrived and, while Rollins offered me a full ride and a laptop, I chose to attend Vassar. Although the Vassar package did include some loans, the majority was composed of a sizeable amount of institutional grant aid, along with a Pell grant. A savvy English teacher encouraged me to ask them for an all-expenses paid visit to the campus (since I had never been there) as well as a larger amount of grant aid. And then, in the spring of my senior year, I was on a plane to Vassar. It was the most beautiful place I had ever seen. The old buildings, the flowers, the library – all of it just said intellectual. The campus promised a different life, a better one. I was sold. I couldn't imagine not going there.

[6] And so I went. To live the dream. Or so it seemed. But college was a rude awakening. All during high school I could not wait to enter that promised land: college. I wanted out. I wanted to be with other smart people. I was tired of being weird. Then I got to Vassar. I wasn't weird there like I had been in high school. There were plenty of other girls who wore Converse and thrift store clothes and who were disaffected. There were clove smokers and Tori Amos addicts. But there was one huge difference. I was poor.

[7] In high school and middle school being poor didn't seem to matter so much. While it didn't help my status out any, at least I wasn't the only one. But at Vassar I felt horribly alone. I didn't know anyone when I arrived. I felt like an impostor. I wasn't supposed to be there. But unlike the students of color, who were able to identify one another through their often-stigmatized difference, my white skin hid the secret that I did not belong.

[8] I lied to new friends, saying I was busy when they wanted to go off campus to eat. My financial aid covered the meal plan, and the only disposable income I had came from my campus job, where I earned $6 an hour for 10 hours a week. I was broke. I didn't buy books during my first year. I didn't have a computer. My whole time in high school I kept meticulous records of everything I spent, not wanting to overextend myself financially like my parents – they had filed bankruptcy multiple times, which I found to be shameful. All of that quickly went to hell. I opened a credit card account and started using it to buy toiletries, plane tickets home, the occasional off-campus meal, and books for classes. It seemed to me that there was no other way to get by other than to go into debt. I finally started to understand my parents' financial "choices."

[9] When I arrived at Vassar, I was full of hope and ideas. I could do anything, be anything! I wanted to keep acting, but I also enjoyed Biology and English and wanted to take classes in Psychology. I also wanted to explore Women's Studies and learn a language, go abroad! The opportunities seemed limitless, and they were. But I never anticipated how alien I would feel on that beautiful campus. I had never before been exposed to the depths of wealth. In my high school I knew that I was on the poorer side, but so were so many of us. Back home, the rich people lived in houses and the really rich people lived in two story houses. In reality, most of my peers came from working-class or lower middle class families. At Vassar my definition of rich and poor was entirely redefined. And along with it the idea that I could ever fit in.

[10] At Vassar I hated moments that I felt exposed me for what I truly was. Much of the time I felt like something of a secret agent, hiding my identity from others lest they pity me, or worse yet, become aware that I didn't belong. My first semester in my Women's Studies class, I grew fed up with the liberal pity for the poor and working-class. My professor stated that poor women really have no choice but to work in one of two industries: sex work or fast food. I was offended by what I saw to be a gross generalization, and when I took issue with this statement was told, "Well, we're all middle class here so we wouldn't know." Rather than challenge this assumption, I took it as a statement that I didn't belong and I better make damn sure that no one found out. After all, maybe they were right. My mom worked at McDonald's for a time while I was in high school and my best friend from home was working as a stripper. What the hell was I doing there?

[11] Probably the worst feeling was trying desperately to pass as middle class, even overcompensating in some respects, because I would rather have been seen as one of them, even as a spoiled rich kid, than for what I really was. In my intro German class, we were given the task of describing to a partner what our parents did for a living. I was paired with a guy whose parents were both doctors. My parents' jobs were mysteriously missing from the vocabulary list that included occupations such as doctor, lawyer, architect, etc. As I struggled with my limited vocabulary to find the words to tell him what my parents did for a living (maintenance man became "fixes things" and cashier "works in a store"), he laughed heartily and told me, "That was a good joke." I paused and then I laughed along with him. I was a good joke. It was very funny that I was there in that ridiculous place pretending to belong when I so obviously didn't.

[12] I used to cry on the phone with my mom that first semester and she would beg me to just come home. But I didn't belong there either. In Alfred Lubrano's Limbo (2004), people who have been upwardly mobile describe this feeling, the "you can't go home again" feeling of being stuck between two worlds and not really belonging in either. Growing up, I felt like my home was a holding station while I worked to get somewhere else, somewhere better. I was always working to get out and when I did, it wasn't really what I expected. I don't know if I thought that I would fall into line with a group of likeminded scholars who would instantly accept and understand me just because I, too, liked to read. It's not like I didn't make wonderful friends in college. I did. But I always felt apart, different. I felt ashamed even telling close friends about my background, like it was a criminal history or something. I felt as though they wouldn't understand and, worse yet, would think I was asking for pity or even a loan. In the classroom I didn't speak up much. I was terrified to talk. I had dominated conversations at my public high school - probably obnoxiously so - but at Vassar I was paralyzed. Anything could give me away. I didn't know as much. Probably I didn't even understand what they were talking about, and what would I have to add to the conversation anyway? I spent all of my time in high school distinguishing myself so that I could have this chance to fade into the background, self-confidence almost completely destroyed.

[13] In the second semester of my first year I took an intro Sociology course, in which I learned that academic language and theory existed that was useful in explaining my feelings of alienation on campus. I learned about the concept of social class, which was mind-blowing for me. As a white student on campus I had no language as to why I should feel so alone. I was a white female at Vassar – how could I NOT belong? Sociology gave me a language. Having already declared a major in Psychology, I tried (and mostly failed) to take Sociology classes every semester in college. I assumed that the reason I could never get in was because these classes filled up with majors. Relating this assumption to a Sociology major from Vassar years later, he told me that he thought everyone knew that you had to go sign up for the classes in person at the Sociology office. This unwritten and invisible rule had prevented me from taking the classes I most yearned to take. So, I decided to get my Ph.D. in Sociology.

[14] Or, actually, it wasn't that simple. I had wanted to go into clinical psychology, but found that I gravitated most to classes dealing with social psychology. In my senior year I took a social psychology seminar on racism and prejudice with an emphasis on policy and was hooked. I continued to work as an intern for the professor, a Black first-generation immigrant from the Bahamas studying federal asylum policy, the summer after I graduated. It was also during this summer that I began to contemplate the extent to which I had "made it," having earned a degree from Vassar. My senior year suitemates, none of whom were on financial aid, were all moving to New York City, unencumbered by student loans and bolstered by parental support. I, however, along with the few other students I knew who were on financial aid and now faced the world, heavily indebted for this opportunity, was much less optimistic. I had naively believed that making it to college and graduating would be enough. I was beginning to realize that this game was nowhere near over and I was once again starting with a disadvantage, especially since loans had grown to be a larger and larger part of my financial aid package over my years at Vassar. I decided to enroll in graduate school to get to the bottom of this. The summer after I graduated I took out as many books on the sociology of education as I could find in the library. This was what I wanted to do!

[15] Once again I went through a somewhat blind application process. I had no idea which graduate programs in Sociology were strong in the Sociology of Education – I had very little idea about Sociology whatsoever! I applied to schools that were ranked high in U.S. News and World Report graduate program rankings, which is not the best way to do things. I really had no idea what I was doing. I applied to six programs (Harvard rejected me again) and got into two. I settled on the University of Washington, where I had applied mainly because a friend from college was also applying to graduate school there, and thought we would have fun living in Seattle together. She didn't get in, I did. So, off I went. Again, I had visited none of the schools in advance and again I knew no one when I arrived. I did not even know that Seattle was hilly. I knew next to nothing about the city or the program.

[16] I struggled immensely in graduate school as many graduate students do. Yet, I often felt as if there was secret knowledge that others had which someone had forgotten to tell me. Looking back I see that I was unaware of the importance of building a relationship with an advisor. I also did not understand how important it was to publish. This all seems so silly and as if someone must have told me, but looking back I truly didn't understand. I had thought graduate school would be a continuation of high school and college – take some classes, read some books, write some papers, make good grades. That the classes are nowhere near as important as the networking and the publishing was a point I missed somewhere along the way.

[17] When a professor offered to collaborate with me on a paper, I foolishly asked to sign up for independent study hours for the work, thinking I needed to justify it by earning credits toward my degree. Later when I dropped the project to work in an Education policy center, he advised me against it. I couldn't understand why in the moment, but now I see. I didn't have the right goals. I hadn't learned the mostly invisible rules. It wasn't until my seventh (and last) year of graduate school that all of this began to make sense to me. As I watched my peers publish with their advisors and get great jobs, I wondered why I wasn't doing the same.

[18] My experiences in graduate school further destroyed what lingering self-confidence remained from my time at Vassar. In my first quarter the professor who taught our Research Methods class sought to break us down, apparently, by intimating in so many words that my classmates and I would never have anything original or worthwhile to publish. I, already fighting a hardcore imposter syndrome, internalized his message and, to this day, struggle against a nagging self-doubt that I have anything valuable whatsoever to share. The fact that I struggled to find an advisor who seemed genuinely supportive of or interested in my work confirmed this for me.

[19] There was one professor in my department who was running a large project dealing with my area of interest. I sent him an email asking if I might be able to find a job on his team. He wrote back, asking me to come in and meet with him. At the meeting he asked about my interest in the project. After I told him, he said to me, sternly, "See, this is how we do things here" and informed me I would not be getting a job. I left, feeling confused and shut down. Then I realized that I must have come across as brusque and entitled, simply writing and asking for a job. But this was the primary way I'd found work before. You ask for it. When I was 14 I marched into the Baskin Robbins without even knowing if they were hiring and asked for a job. I got one. That's how you do it, I thought. I realized that by his stating that "this is how we do things here" I had broken some unknown rule that dictated appropriate middle class behavior when asking for employment. I guessed I had been too brazen, a trait of my working-class upbringing that had taught me to be direct and not "beat around the bush." Leondar-Wright (2014) in her study of activist groups discusses the ways in which classed styles of interaction lead to misunderstandings and the unintended reproduction of classed hierarchies. This was one of many examples during graduate school when I felt misunderstood or as though I were speaking a separate language.

[20] Financially I was also struggling. While many members of my graduate cohort moved into new condos or houses provided and furnished by their parents, I arrived in Seattle with a couple hundred bucks and a suitcase. For the first couple of weeks, I found a temporary place to stay through a friend of a friend, while I looked for a place – but soon realized that I did not have enough money to put down a deposit on an apartment. I scoured Craigslist, looking for anything I could afford, and ended up living in the moldy basement of a house located about 15 minutes by bus from the university. When I moved in, I didn't even have a bed. I borrowed money from a guy I had just started seeing to be able to buy one. Years later, I found out that the university has funds for students in financial distress, and that I could have applied for a temporary loan. The friend who told me this, a Latina student from a middle class family, had learned this information through a university program committed to serving the needs of students of color. There was, however, no program explicitly dedicated to serving the needs of students from low-income backgrounds. Once again, while my white skin allowed me to blend in seamlessly to the university campus, it also served to deny me support I needed. In addition, I had been raised and taught to fend for myself so it never even occurred to me to ask the University for financial help or some kind of advance as I made the transition so I could have found a better place to live.

[21] I felt alienated from the other members of my graduate cohort, who were older than me and whose idea of fun was hosting brunches at each other's well-appointed homes. Wondering why I felt so lost, I started searching out more information on social class. In the third year of graduate school I discovered Alfred Lubrano's book Limbo in which he shares his own struggles of upward mobility as well as interviewing other "straddlers," his term for the upwardly mobile. In tears of recognition, I devoured the book in one sitting. Hungry for more, I searched for other written work on upward mobility and discovered Allison Hurst's dissertation on working-class identities in college, which she later published as a book titled The Burden of Academic Success. In Hurst's work I saw my own experience and sent her an email. She introduced me to the Association of Working Class Academics list, as well as encouraging me to attend the Working Class Studies Association conference. I am forever grateful to her for welcoming me into the community where I have found so much support from warm and kindred spirits.

[22] Before attending the Working Class Studies Association conference, I never understood how people could actually enjoy these things. I hate conferences. Well, I hate them and I love them. The hated: The dreaded conference cocktail hour. I hate the butt-sniffing, badge-ogling, room-scanning nature of these things. I HATE it. Like many other academics from the working-class, I am terrible at networking and making small talk. It's something I never ever had to do and I hate it and I'm bad at it. It feels so fake and pained to me. I blame the preponderance of this stilted form of communication in academia for the drinking problem I nursed and eventually defeated in graduate school. Alcohol was once the only way I could get through this middle-class adult game of pretend. Since completing my Ph.D. I've tried a couple of times – I have gone to my section dinner at my annual conference only to stand by myself watching everyone whose work I've read slap each other on the back and move seamlessly through the crowd, guffawing at every turn. I look at my feet. I feel like I used to when I wandered the playground in elementary school, watching the other kids play, knowing that if I got too close, they'd mock my shabby clothing, my desire to belong laid bare at their feet while they knowingly quashed it. I nurse drinks and attempt to talk to others who are also standing in the corner, looking lost. This is what I hate about conferences with the exception of one. I have almost always felt welcome at the Working Class Studies Association conference where everyone is treated as an equal and valued contributor, regardless of whether they come from the Ivy League, a community college, or are a labor organizer or tradesperson. I am so grateful that I discovered this organization as a graduate student. This is the only conference where I have ever consistently felt recognized and encouraged for my work on social class and education.

[23] What I love about all conferences and what I realize is also probably one of the least "useful" ways of spending my time is going to sessions of interest to me. I love learning about new ideas, scribbling away in my notebook while others share their work. I love the presumed reason we are all there – to share knowledge. This is what excites me. I think, in particular, of how I can incorporate any new work into pieces I am currently at work on or how I can share these new findings with classes I am teaching. This is what excites me and recharges my batteries. So, of late, I have started ignoring the social aspect of most large conferences in favor of going to sessions and on my spare time exploring the Chinatown or working-class immigrant neighborhoods of the cities I visit. I see friends in the area. I try to ignore the inevitable class wounds of interacting with people who eclipse me in status and upbringing. I just want to do my thing. Yes, I know that this is not how I "get ahead" in my profession. I have realized that. But I feel that my wounds are too freshly scarred to open anew so someone else can feel better that their job is at a higher ranked institution than mine. I just feel lucky to be here.

[24] I thought that these and other difficulties I faced were just typical graduate school problems. It wasn't until I talked with Sara Appel, a graduate student I had met at the WCSA conference that I started to wonder about the extent to which our experiences were shaped by our social class backgrounds. Together we designed a study of graduate students in which we would seek to tease out the effects of class on graduate school outcomes. In this study, which focused on a sample of graduate students recruited from a random sample of Sociology doctoral programs, we found that social class did indeed shape graduate school experiences (Warnock & Appel 2012). Specifically, we found that working-class graduate students were disadvantaged relative to their middle-class peers in the areas of academic integration and financial support, a finding that echoed both of our experiences in graduate school.

[25] In college and graduate school I was assumed to be like everyone else. While it was a blessing in that I never felt the need to justify my presence on campus like so many students of color must every day, it also meant that I did not receive the support that other students were identified as needing. It wasn't until late in my graduate career that I learned of programs like McNair and Gear Up, the local chapters of which consisted almost entirely of students of color. In fact, Espenshade and Radford (2009) found that low-income white students were the least likely of all other race and class combinations to be offered admission at elite colleges and universities in the U.S. I remember reading that and feeling shocked that I had gotten into Vassar when it was still need-sensitive and not need-blind. When I finally learned about these programs as a graduate student, I applied to work in each and every one of them – Gear Up, Upward Bound, McNair. I was never offered the job. While I don't know why, I have wondered if my white skin played a role. Whoa, whoa, whoa! I am not claiming reverse discrimination. But I do believe that race and class have been so entangled that it is possible that interviewers did not see how I might be able to relate to low-income students who were mostly students of color.

[26] The flip side of this is that, while I was not able to get these relatively low-paying and less prestigious "service" type positions, I practically fell into more prestigious research jobs. For example, I applied on a whim to a Microsoft Research summer intern position at the end of my first year in graduate school. To my surprise, I got the job, a job which paid more than any other job I have ever held, despite giggling during my interview and claiming that I "didn't know much about computers." Did my white skin help me to fit in with the almost entirely white staff in my department? Undoubtedly. Did my white female interviewer, consciously or not, identify me as someone who could fit in? Apparently. So, while I was unable to secure the low-paying, less prestigious work I truly wanted, my white skin afforded me opportunities in more prestigious research positions that would probably not have come so easily to me had I possessed a darker hue.

[27] Upon completing my internship, I was offered a full-time job at Microsoft Research, which I rejected, because I was more interested in working with students, especially first-generation and working-class students. I took a class through the College of Education for which I mentored and tutored first-generation students, visited students in low-income schools with the University of Washington's Dream Project to share information about applying to college and financial aid, and interned with the YMCA Black Achievers. Still, I wanted to do more. I attempted to start a group for low-income and working-class students at UW called the UW Straddlers. However, I found recruiting to be difficult since many of these students were working full-time and/or commuting to campus. While we had a couple of meetings, ultimately, the group fizzled. Although I was excited about the group, which I recruited for by posting flyers around campus, I didn't share information about it with faculty or graduate students in my department because I feared their scorn. When I was in graduate school, there wasn't much talk about social class and I was hesitant to out myself and my background.

[28] When I transitioned into my first year as a professor in a visiting appointment at a small, private liberal arts college in the Northeast, I was determined not to be silent anymore. During my first year on campus, I spoke on a campus-wide panel about my experience as an undergraduate from a low-income background on a similar campus. The student response was powerful (students approached me in tears after the panel) and ultimately led to the formation of an informal student group for low-income, first-generation, and/or working-class (LIFGWC) students on campus. I worked with one of my students to publicize and recruit members for the group. This is where we ran into our first problem. How to contact this often invisible student group? An unsuccessful attempt to recruit using a table at the club fair exposed the extent to which LIFGWC students may fear identifying as such for fear of stigma and also the extent to which these students may not even attend the Club Fair. [1] Together we decided that reaching out to these students over email would be a more confidential and secure method. However, how could we reach these students by email? Unlike college-maintained lists for other student groups, such as students of color, no email list existed for LIFGWC students. The admissions office kept no records on first-generation students. We approached the Office of Financial Aid and were told that the information we wanted to obtain was confidential. However, they did offer to forward an email to students who received Pell grants. The extent to which we found difficulty reaching LIFGWC students on campus illustrates the ways in which this population of students was institutionally invisible.

[29] The emails worked much better than the Club Fair table - over 20 students came to the first meeting we advertised. Sitting in a circle, students took turns introducing themselves and sharing their stories. It was inspiring to hear from all of them and I had the sense that I had found my calling. I continued to attend the first few meetings, until I began to notice that many students would look to me for approval as they spoke and I became concerned that my status as professor was interfering with the flow of the meetings. The group continued to meet for the next two years and was highly visible on campus, hosting a Class Action workshop on social class on campus, a campus-wide panel on social class where students shared their experiences, collecting post-secret cards and publishing pamphlets of "Class Secrets" which they distributed around campus, and developing and publishing a resource guide for LIFGWC students. During this time I was pleased to see the college provide some financial support for the group, although the group was never able to acquire official club status. To do so would have required that group members collect hundreds of signatures from their peers, a task that many group members found both Herculean and prohibitively embarrassing. Attaining club status also would have required the group to name officers, imposing a hierarchical structure with which many did not feel comfortable. Ultimately, the group did not last. I believe that a lack of institutional support and a mismatch of the group's mission both within the institutional diversity framework, as well as within the mission of the institution itself, were to blame.

[30] Diversity on college campuses over the past few decades has been defined almost primarily through racial and ethnic diversity. Given that, until recently, many racial and ethnic groups were denied access to selective and predominantly white institutions like the college where I worked and given that students of color remain underrepresented on these campuses, the current focus on increasing racial and ethnic diversity on campus is clearly incredibly important. However, until recently, socioeconomic diversity on campus has been all but ignored. Recently, some institutions, including my alma mater, have made commitments to increasing socioeconomic diversity on campus and to identifying and supporting what are often referred to as simply first-generation students, but many others do not share this priority (Perez-Pena 2013).

[31] My previous institution continued to focus exclusively on racial and ethnic diversity to the point that an admissions recruitment program - the qualifying criteria of which were entirely socioeconomic - was widely and wrongly believed by many on campus to be a recruitment program for students of color. Indeed, this program targeted and recruited primarily students of color. This made for a fraught campus dynamic in which white students were assumed to be middle and upper class and students of color were assumed to be first-generation and low-income, leaving many students who did not fit into either of these boxes feeling unseen, unsupported, and/or misrecognized on campus.

[32] The celebratory diversity framework through which colleges tend to operate also does not allow for the strange case of social class, an identity, which unlike most others, can be changed. And, indeed, the whole point of attending college IS to change one's social class identity, as Casey (2005) recognizes in her excellent piece on this dilemma. Casey argues that "the working-class student's difference, implicitly constituted as lack, is what college is designed to erase." How then could one incorporate and recognize social class into a framework that celebrates diversity through difference? As Casey states, pursuing a genuine form of diversity on campus may "mean recognizing the possibility that the academy is not situated to accommodate equally all forms of difference, most especially class-based difference." Indeed, constructing a diversity framework around the celebration of difference allows the academy to ignore social class inequalities (Michaels 2007).

[33] To request recognition of social class diversity and privilege is not to deny the continuing importance of racial and ethnic diversity on our college campuses. At least it shouldn't be. But what I learned from doing social justice work around issues of social class is that too often colleagues who should be allies become competitors. Rather than working together to build a more inclusive space for all students who feel marginalized on campus, attention is instead drawn to battling over the scarce resources devoted to bolstering diversity within the institution. I felt as though some of my colleagues doing social justice work around race and ethnicity on campus saw me as a threat in my focus on social class, rather than an ally. This, combined with the lack of institutional support for socioeconomic diversity on campus, appeared to seal my fate. As a visiting professor with excellent teaching evaluations and an active research agenda, along with all of the work I had done with founding and advising the LIFGWC student group, I was ecstatic when a tenure line opened. I was especially confident, because the job ad emphasized the importance of contributing to diversity on campus. However, I was not considered for an interview, and was crushed. Looking back, I shouldn't have been surprised. When I mentioned to one of my colleagues that I had been asked by the search committee to meet with a visiting candidate for one of the diversity positions at the college, she expressed surprise and said she didn't know what I would have to offer to the hiring decision. This, despite the fact that I had started and served as faculty advisor to the student group for LIFGWC students. I often felt as if the work I did around socioeconomic diversity on campus was invisible.

[34] Because of this, I began to feel angry. Angry because my unique contributions and experiences born out of my working-class background were largely brushed aside or ignored in the largely race- and ethnicity-focused dialogues around diversity on campus. It's not that I don't acknowledge my white privilege – I do, I do, I do. But I will admit that it gets frustrating to do so repeatedly when the privilege that others have by virtue of being born into the middle or upper classes is not simultaneously considered as an important factor in determining their life course or chances. Did my white skin aid me greatly in my quest for upward mobility? No doubt. Does it shield me from the concerned stares of colleagues who otherwise may tiptoe around my blatant difference from the rest? Absolutely. Yet at the same time, it also enables others to dismiss me as yet another person who has benefited from a blanket form of privilege, one that too often does not choose to acknowledge other life experiences and identities swimming just beneath the surface, hidden from the naked eye, yet shaping the ways in which we move throughout the world just as much as our skin color does.

[35] Another distinction that my skin color offers me is that others say things in my presence that I don't think they would say in front of people of color, due to the overwhelming assumption that people of color in academia come from impoverished backgrounds. The wife of a college official cautioned me about the "trailer people" in the neighborhood in which we were looking to live, never knowing she was talking to one of these dreaded sub-human creatures, hosting one in her home even! Faculty colleagues guffawing heartily at a joke about sex workers, as I sat in silence, thinking of my younger sister who has worked as an escort. Ironically, because of our national silence on the topic of social class, I would likely be considered the rude one had I protested. Over the years I have found that nothing stymies polite conversation as much as my answers to questions about my family and especially my sister. I have been silent or evasive to the sibling question during previous job interviews and other professional situations, simultaneously angry at myself for perpetuating the perception of shame and fearful of what my honesty might bring. My white skin provides admission into an esteemed space where I am presumed to belong, yet don't. And where I am too often afraid to voice the truth.

[36] This is why, when I was told that social class was not pertinent to a roundtable discussion my colleagues and I were having about privilege on campus, I felt like screaming. "How about recognizing yours?" I wanted to shout back to my upper class colleague. But to acknowledge any disadvantage born of social class is to deny one's white privilege, or so it seemed. And I have absolutely no desire to do that. I teach about white privilege and speak openly about the advantages it has afforded me in pretty much every class I teach as a sociologist. So, why can't I address class privilege as well, without the fear of being accused of attempting to avoid a discussion of white privilege? At a recent conference I watched, silent, while four white panelists addressing social class inequality in higher education, were attacked by audience members for an accused avoidance of race. I found this ironic and sad, because it seems to me that in academia we are attempting to avoid a discussion of class inequality! Have my colleagues from the upper class not benefited from their class background in similar ways that I have benefited from white privilege? Why, then, is that not important to discuss? And, do they realize that by silencing me they are also silencing LIFGWC students on campus whose unique and sometimes painful experiences so often go unacknowledged?

[37] I want to be clear that I do not think that social class is more important than or should eclipse race in our discussions of inequality. By no means! In fact, I am greatly disturbed by arguments in support of replacing race-based affirmative action with social class-based policies. We need BOTH. We need to recognize that we are a country that has systematically oppressed and disadvantaged both people of color and the poor. To claim that one is more important than the other or more worthy is to pit race inequality against class inequality, an old trick of the conservative right. We need to craft a more inclusive definition of diversity, one that acknowledges the systemic inequalities faced on the basis of race and ethnicity AND social class. I think it is wrong to focus on social class to the exclusion of race and vice versa. I don't think we can have a conversation about one without acknowledging the other. Yet at the same time, I think that our dialogue around issues of social class in the academy has been anemic at best. That doesn't mean we need to stop talking about race. I think we can and should consider them both.

[38] So why haven't we? I argue that to recognize social class inequality on campus is to question the overarching mission of the academy, as well as the bottom line. Public colleges and universities, which were historically funded in large part by federal and state governments, have been raising tuition fees to make up the deficit in recent dwindling governmental support (Ehrenberg 2006). Meanwhile, private colleges strive to find families who can pay full freight, and spend large portions of their budgets on building state-of-the-art dining halls and dorms in order to attract the "country club" set (Jacob et al. 2013). Students who cannot pay for college out of pocket have been forced to rely more heavily on student loans as federal and state funding for low-income students have decreased as well (St. John 2003). For example, the Pell grant, which was designed to aid low-income students in attending college, has not kept stride with increasing tuition rates. While the maximum Pell grant covered 87% of average public four-year tuition and fees in 2003-04, ten years later it only covers 63% (College Board 2013). The corresponding contemporary percentage for private non-profit colleges is a measly 19%.

[39] Focused on raising their rankings, all colleges and universities compete for students with high SAT scores, a measure which has repeatedly been found to correlate highly with social class background (Balf 2014; Rampell 2009; Soares 2011). As need-based aid has declined, state-based merit aid programs have gained support across the country (Heller 2006). While some research suggests that the transparent guidelines of these programs have helped low-income students gain access (Ness & Tucker 2008), other studies suggests that these programs are providing funding for students whose families would have been able to pay for college while shutting out those who couldn't (Heller 2006).

[40] But, why would colleges and universities even seek to increase socioeconomic diversity on their campuses? This form of diversity does not boost their rankings, but detracts from them, due to the fact that students from low-income backgrounds have lower test scores on average compared to their more privileged peers. So, why would a college want to recognize social class diversity? From a purely rational and financial perspective there is no incentive to do so! I realized that, by organizing around social class on campus and raising awareness of social class inequality, I was butting up directly against the bottom line of the institution. So, here is where we ask ourselves, what is the mission anyway? And this is also where I become extremely conflicted about my place in the academy.

[41] Finally, and this is by far the largest issue I with which I continually struggle: how to be a part of an institution designed to reproduce the subjugation of my class of origin? Am I a traitor? Have I bought into and internalized the very principles that justify the devaluation of the work my parents did and the accompanying starvation wages that sent us weekly to the local food pantry? I cringe each time I hear a colleague refer to the poor or working-class in a manner that suggests their situation is due to some inherent deficiency. Yet I rarely speak up. I don't do so for a number of reasons. First, I don't want to embarrass my otherwise politically correct "liberal" colleagues. Second, I fear that speaking up will only prompt further vitriol and I will not do an adequate job of explaining myself – I will become too emotional, a cardinal sin in academia. Third, and probably, honestly, most relevant, I am a coward. I am a trailer girl in professor's clothing and terrified that others will find out and see me as such. Years later, years after pretending to be middle class in college, after enduring multiple forms of social class hazing in my first semester, I still fear others' judgment and pity. Even as I build my resume with studies of social class and higher education, I am loathe to tell my own story. When I saw the call for this issue, I knew I had to contribute something. But writing this piece has been the most difficult task I've approached yet in my professional life. How to tell my story without inviting pity, without resorting to any treacly metaphors of upward mobility, while depicting my background with both dignity and honesty. The task seemed impossible to me. And I still fear.

[42] As an academic, I am supposed to be bold in my writing and convictions, yet I feel weak at the knees when discussing issues of class. I struggle not to let emotion overtake my strain of thinking entirely. In classes when we discuss the subject, the blood still rushes to my head and my voice trembles. I am so afraid of it becoming known that I do not belong. As human beings and social animals, what do we want more than anything? To belong. But also to be respected. I guess I worry that discussing my class background or questioning a colleagues' condescending tone or assumptions when discussing "trailer people" would nullify both. So, I continue in my scholarship to address these issues, while trying my damnedest to skate by in my real life, not to make waves, not to cause controversy. And in this way, I am helping to reproduce those false beliefs that make my privileged position possible. So, I suppose I am a traitor. Even by indulging in this life and pretending that I, above other people, deserve the leisure of thought and flexibility that this job affords, reinforces inequalities.

[43] So, what do I do to counter these self-leveled accusations of collusion with the academic hierarchy? In my own classroom I bring discussions of social class inequality front and center. I take pleasure and pride in offering a working-class perspective on the world and encourage my students to use their own lives as evidence. As a social scientist, I know that it is not popular or encouraged to use anecdotal evidence for arguments in classrooms. "The dreaded N of 1," my colleagues say, as they knowingly sigh in each other's direction. However, I disagree with this.

[44] As a sociologist who uses quantitative methods in my research and teaches statistics, I believe that it is important that students learn that you cannot generalize from one person's experience. However, I also believe strongly in the power of the anecdote and I believe that to caution students against relying on their own experience to construct arguments is to silence students, particularly those from LIFGWC backgrounds. As a college student, I was terrified to speak up, not only because my experiences would mark me as different from the rest, but also because I had been cautioned against using "anecdotal evidence." Working-class people are much more likely to use stories and anecdotes when communicating (Leondar-Wright 2014) and to identify this form of speech as unwanted in the classroom is to intimate that these students and their experiences are not valued. At least, that is how I felt as a student. This is why, in my classroom, I encourage the use of anecdote, as I find it useful in relating abstract theoretical concepts to personal experience.

[45] In my research I continue to investigate social class inequalities as they relate to higher education. I am currently at work on a number of projects, all of which aim to identify mechanisms of and solutions for reducing persisting socioeconomic stratification. I mentor graduate and undergraduate students, taking particular care to develop those students from similar class backgrounds to me. I want them to be able to see themselves reflected back in me. I want them to avoid the pitfalls I encountered in my own odyssey of higher education. I want them to feel like they belong here.

[46] I am not alone. Detailing the unique contributions of working-class academics to pedagogy and scholarship, Stricker (2011) makes a compelling argument for considering social class diversity within the professoriate. I argue that there should be equal efforts to recruit faculty from working-class and low-income backgrounds as there are efforts to recruit faculty of color. Right alongside, with the goal of upsetting racial hegemony in the academy, should be the same focus for social class. Yes, it's true that my combined family income, education level, and occupation place me squarely in the upper middle class now. Yet my gargantuan student loan debt, desire to financially support my parents, lack of comparative social and cultural capital in middle class settings and a host of other reasons combine to ensure that I will never totally own that label. For example, when my partner and I were buying a house, we had a difficult time negotiating a favorable mortgage rate due to the large amount of student debt I owe. I felt penalized for accruing the debt that was absolutely necessary for me to be able to obtain a college and graduate education. On top of this, I felt guilty for buying a home when my parents still live in the run-down trailer I grew up in. It is very difficult to explain the urge to financially support one's parents to middle class people who take the parental support they received, and may still receive, for granted. The guilt I feel for living the lifestyle I do, as well as the many signals I receive that I do not belong in the upper middle class, reinforce the much stronger ties I feel to my class of origin, the working class. I feel much closer to my students and colleagues who come from similar backgrounds than I do to my class of destination peers. We just understand the world differently. And it is this valuable diversity of opinion and experience that the academy is missing as we continue to overlook social class.

[47] For all of these reasons I believe it is time we give social class a place at the diversity table. Institutions must identify and support LIFGWC students on campus, faculty from LIFGWC backgrounds should be actively recruited, and colleges and universities should take a long, hard look at their mission as it relates to social class mobility or reproduction. Many of us have or are trying to cross the tracks and it is time for the academy to address the often unspoken pain of this journey and to find a way to make it less so. Part of this will require acknowledging, recruiting, and supporting social class diversity and working to eliminate inequality on campus and part of this will require a deeper examination of the goals of academia. The academy should focus on empowering and strengthening voices from the working-class, rather than silencing or denying them. In order to move toward a more "genuine pursuit of diversity" (Casey 2005) on campus and as a society, it is vital that we do so.


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Casey, Janet. 2005. "Diversity, Discourse, and the Working-Class Student." Academe 91: 33-36.

College Board. 2013. Trends in Student Aid 2013. Retrieved July 1, 2014 «https://trends.collegeboard.org/student-aid»

Ehrenberg, Ronald G. 2006. What's Happening to Public Higher Education? Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Espenshade, Thomas J. & Alexandria Walton Radford. 2009. No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Heller, Donald E. 2006. "Merit Aid and College Access." Unpublished manuscript.

Hurst, Allison. 2010. The Burden of Academic Success. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Jacob, Brian, Brian McCall, & Kevin M. Stange. 2013. "College as Country Club." National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 18745. Retrieved July 1, 2014 «http://www.nber.org/papers/w18745»

Leondar-Wright, Betsy. 2014. Missing Class. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Lubrano, Alfred. 2004. Limbo. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Michaels, Walter Benn. 2007. The Trouble with Diversity. New York, NY: Metropolitan Books.

Ness, Erik C. & Richard Tucker. 2008. "Eligibility Effects on College Access." Research in Higher Education 49: 569-588.

Pé-Peña, Richard. 2013. "Efforts to Recruit Poor Students Lag at Some Elite Colleges." The New York Times, July 30. Retrieved July 1, 2014 «http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/31/education/elite-colleges-differ-on-how-they-aid-poor.html?pagewanted=all»

Rampell, Catherine. 2009. "SAT Scores and Family Income." The New York Times Economix Blog, August 27. Retrieved July 1, 2014 «http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/27/sat-scores-and-family-income/»

St. John, Edward P. 2003. Refinancing the College Dream. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Soares, Joseph A. 2011. SAT Wars. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Stricker, Kristi. 2011. "Class Consciousness and Critical Mass; Exploring the Practice and Scholarship of Academics from the Working-class." Race, Gender & Class 18: 372-384.

Warnock, Deborah & Sara Appel. 2012. "Learning the Unwritten Rules: Working-class Students in Graduate School." Innovative Higher Education 37: 307-321.


[1] See Jenny Stuber's work on social class differences in extracurricular participation on college campuses.