I want to pass along a book recommendation from the Upper Midwest Regional Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, which I attended a couple of weeks ago in St. Paul. I've spoken before with a few classmates about the challenge of navigating the academy from a working-class background, and a colleague at AAR highly recommended this book, This Fine Place So Far from Home: Voices of Academics from the Working Class, edited by C. L. Barney Dews and Carolyn Leste Law:
I was struck by how many people at AAR identified as coming from the working class -- it was significantly more than I've ever noticed in a group of historians. All of us who identified ourselves seemed to be wrestling with the same issues of isolation and feeling out of place, which I had assumed I was feeling mostly because of being a gay man in the academy. Many of the issues of feeling at home in academia are in fact similar for working class and LGBTQ scholars.
Perhaps the most prominent issue the book addresses is the sense of being pulled between two worlds. For many of us from the working class, getting an advanced degree is a source of pride for our family, but also a source of estrangement, as we are pulled increasingly away from our origins. Also, it's not easy to explain the value of spending several years pursuing a doctorate, which is a puzzling and extravagant use of time to my family. My experience is that my two (or three) worlds hardly intersect at all, and so it takes a lot of energy to keep investing in such divergent relationships. I've heard bilingual friends speak about their experiences in this way, too.
Also addressed are the issues that probably most grad students wrestle with, of feeling an impostor in the world of the intellect. I notice how some grad students who grew up in academic families seem to move through the program with such familiarity -- not that it's easier for them intellectually or emotionally, but that they don't immediately assume that it's because they don't belong there. I think that the level of self-doubt has a different meaning for people who come from outside this sphere.
And one struggle that I know I've not hidden well is how awkwardly working-class behaviors and values fit into the academy. Not simply speaking plainly, but being blunter, even belligerent, using more profanity, and "playing the game" with less grace -- all contribute to the experience of being out of place.
I think that having a working-class background has motivated me to look at my research differently, and approach my teaching differently, but I'm looking forward to reading this book and being reminded that, despite our feelings of invisibility, that quite a few people who have to navigate that experience of being an outsider. I also look forward to talking more with all of you about these dynamics.