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Women in Academia: Class and Academia

When it comes to academia, there is a standard story. Middle and upper class students follow their academic interests for the love of the field into graduate school and then academia. They are young, healthy, from a privileged economic background, and with a solid support system. But even though that story is the often portrayed and expected story, it is not the only story. That path through academia is not the only path.

The other day, thewhywhygirl posted a link on her tumblr to a piece at the Chronicle of Higher Education about the harsh realities for academics who come from poverty and have had to “bootstrap” their way into the ivory tower. The post by Rachel Wagner, an associate professor of religion at Ithaca College, described her journey as a poor, single mother through academia, from graduate school to tenure, and shows how having the safety net of food stamps, subsidized student loans, and Medicaid enabled her to achieve her career goals.

I agree with Dr. Wagner and strongly believe that there must be a safety net in place, and I believe that the university must do more. Dr. Wagner advocated for that safety net eloquently and persuasively in her article, but her piece raised several other issues, including the classism inherent in academia. This classism creates a set of assumptions and expectations that can make graduate school and academia much more difficult and much less inviting for people who come from poverty.

Part of what makes bootstrapping one’s way into academia so difficult, and what makes staying there such a potentially stressful and fraught experience, is the myriad of ways that money is assumed.  For instance, there are many things, from airfare to conferences to dinners with prospective students to research supplies that must be purchased off campus for later reimbursement from the university. The idea of reimbursement isn’t a bad one, but it does make the assumption that academics have some money on hand–after all, if you cannot make the initial purchases, then it doesn’t matter whether or not you get reimbursed.

And then there are the assumptions–building the main social activities around expensive activities like rock climbing or making snide comments about foods that are not organic or do not meet some relatively arbitrary standard of “healthy”– all of those assumptions assume that the normal academic comes from, is familiar with, and can expect to continue to be the middle class. There is the expectation that all graduate students and faculty know the ropes of middle class expectations, and this expectation further isolates those people who come from poor backgrounds. Even the way academia is discussed, as an ensconced life of the mind rather than as an occupation that mixes education with community involvement with research, adds to the idea that academia is a place only for those with means to think and create within a secluded community.

It doesn’t have to be this way. True, creating a more open and understanding environment will not do anything if the safety nets that are in place get destroyed, but they can make academia a less isolating and uninviting place for people who fall outside the middle class expectation. By creating an open environment in which people can talk about money without feeling shame or stigma, where the institution itself acknowledges the varied economic background of its faculty and students, and where people are cognizant of the differences that result from varied economic backgrounds, academia could become a place that encourages the participation and leadership of people outside of the privileged classes, and that’s important.

7 replies on “Women in Academia: Class and Academia”

We make like $14k/year as instructors in my graduate program (that’s not TAs–the full instructor of a class, the person who designs the lessons, grades them, deals with grade complaints, everything). [I think in the business school the TAs (who do the grading and lead discussion sections, usually) make more than that. Which is a separate problem.] This teaching load is the “maximum” the University can employ graduate students for–it’s just below “half time” work, according to their scale (we work “.49 of full time” supposedly). So we’re automatically ineligible for any other on-campus work. If we take anther on-campus job, we can lose our teaching position and our tuition waiver (which is obviously not optional). You can take a different “.49” position on campus, that might pay a little better, but then everyone is quick to point out that you won’t be able to ever get a teaching job if you didn’t teach in grad school.

Then if you go home and work in the summer, or if you work off campus during the year, you’re embarrassed to mention it because it’s like you’re not prioritizing your studying. My second job conflicts with the office hours of one of my professors, so I had to email him a question about my research for his course. The expectation is that you’ll come talk in person, and I was embarrassed to tell him that I literally could never attend his office hours because I have to work. It’s like if you don’t live on campus (both literally and figuratively) and you want/have to have a life outside the school and your career goal, you’re not being serious enough.

I think this even extends to people who have to live farther from school to accommodate their partners’ careers and people who have children; there’s this idea that if you didn’t figure out that this was your calling when you were 22 and single, you can’t be as successful.

Related: when you get a Fulbright grant, you make a comically small amount of money. You have to pay your rent, pay for food, and often pay your own travel expenses on (when I was in Germany) 703 euro/month. And some people had to do this in Munich. Which means you’re making negative money now every month with your rent and your bahncard and eating once or twice a week. And except with special permission you can’t work extra besides your Fulbright project/teaching. But this is pretty well known and standard, so basically it’s a great line on your resume, a great experience, a great networking opportunity that is inherently exclusive of people who aren’t well off. And I think a lot of these things, like large amounts of volunteer work and various internships, are inherently exclusive of people who like, need to actually get paid for their time. And it’s shitty. It perpetuates the cycle of opportunities for people who already have opportunities and exclusion for people who are already excluded.

The other thing that makes me SO ANGRY about graduate school and poverty is that at big research universities, the graduate students are basically pushing the program forward by teaching all of the undergraduate courses.  The graduate students are energetic and professional and recruit students to take courses which eventually feed into the full professors’ courses.  And yet – the stipend is absurd.  My stipend was $14,000 a year.  Sure, it’s great to get funded, but the work that the graduate students did in my department, and the worth they brought to the department, was worth far more than the payment.  So…students who don’t have a safety net or support system are forced out.

Yes- I completely agree! I was at an R-1 for my master’s degree as an international student, and also worked on the side on campus to make ends meet. In my field, the going rate for teaching was $200/month which was supposed to work out to just under $10/hr (already pretty cheap) except when you are a new teacher working on a class you ALWAYS work more than your allotted hours. So you end up working for less than minimum wage. I feel like this is unfair to teaching assistants (obviously) but also to the undergrads who at times, get taught a class by a burnt out and over-tired ta.

I should note that, although I was an international student, studying in the US, I was extremely privileged (not so much financially- my parents are squarely middle class and we supported ourselves for the most part though school) but in that I could go home, to Canada, in the summer, live with my parents, and work a summer job. Doing this while writing my master’s thesis was tough, but I also knew that if I didn’t there was no way I could afford to go back to school.  But the problem is, not everyone is from  a country where the dollar is mostly at par with the US. While I definitely lived cheaply during my schooling in the US and had NO cushion for medical bills etc I was privileged in that I could make a bit of money when I went home to canada.

I had my own struggles in graduate school, including being on WIC and secretly working 25 hours a week at another job, on top of my schooling, on top of teaching (often twice the load) undergrad courses.  But there is a group here that I think needs to be highlighted, and that is international students.  International students in my program had no access to loans, had no access to any sort of government subsidies, and were often expected to send money back to their families at home.

AND, getting a job afterwards is more difficult (in a ridiculously difficult market as it is) because they have to convince a workplace to like them enough to be willing to sponsor their visa.

And in the middle of everything, their advisor would say things like “why don’t you just use the $1000 grant money you got to do your research in-country, it will make your work that much stronger,” and then get offended when they would say “just the plan ticket there is $1500, I can’t.”  And then – it looks like the student isn’t invested in their work.

This is a huge injustice, in my opinion.

The reference to an assumed shared experience in academia is dead on.  I’m pursuing my PhD in history and just 30 minutes ago everyone in class did a little nod-nod-wink-wink about how some people (in this case, rural blue collar conservatives) don’t understand how things work.  Super alienating and elitist.

Thankfully, I feel that I’m to the point in my career where I have the analytic tools and vocabulary to dismantle those problematic conversations in the classroom.  The worst is when that assumed shared experience extends beyond the classroom to more social settings.  It’s a painful process learning how to code your language, police your behavior, and mask your experience in order to function in those circles.  Not to mention the economic challenges listed above.  A less exclusive, class-based environment would be a welcome change.

You would think that in academia that your work will speak for itself. If you worked hard and produced good papers/books, that would be enough. Unfortunately, it is so much more complicated. Unless you are a genius and your work is truly ground-breaking, success in academia depends on finding the right mentor who will point out the right people to smooge and then being able to afford the time and money to be able to do so. Take a very hard-working international student as an example. This person probably has won prizes and scholarships in their home country to be able to afford the initial amount and flight money to come to the States. Once here, they are restricted to the money you earn as a grad assistant to survive. If you are in a mid-tier university in humanities or social sciences, that can be as little as $10,000 per annum (this is what I made). You aren’t allowed to work beyond your 20 hours assistantship on campus. Even baby-sitting is technically not legal. You can risk it, but given the current climate, most don’t. You are lucky if your dept. gives you a tuition remission. We had to pay half of the tuition; assistantship made it in-state, thank god! You are not eligible for FAFSA. You are rarely eligible for credit card and even when you are your credit limit is severely limited. Our professors emphasize that presenting at conferences is of utmost importance. But the department doesn’t cover the expenses. In a semester, upto two conferences for three students will be funded. Conferences have their own travel grants but the competition is fierce. Some years you are lucky and other times not so much. Finding a professional outfit, going to bars to network and socialize, on top of day to day expenses. This is a rough life. Add to this, additional responsibilities like being a single parent, or for that matter having a family. We know women tend to be disproportionately responsible for housekeeping and child rearing. If you don’t have a super supportive partner who would be willing to do not just their half, but go above and beyond that, then good luck.

The thing is the environment can be changed if only we are willing to have an honest dialogue. Unfortunately, I’ve found that opening a dialogue can quickly label you as a whiner, which then puts you on the blacklist of both professors and colleagues. I’ve started a dept. level international student support group and a women’s group but getting people to come was so difficult. Everyone was terrified of being branded as a complainer.

So that was my very long diatribe. I am out of steam. Great article. I hope most academics find the support and help they need.

Thanks for posting this. I am currently beginning my graduate studies in literature, and hope to go on to be a professor one day. I come from a family that has always lived below the poverty line, and the class expectations in academia have been a bit of a surprise to me. I work hard, save hard, and apply for every single scholarship I can, which is the only reason I have been able to afford to get this far. I remember going to a conference, and being told that I would get reimbursed for flights and accommodation by the university. Which is great and all, but to even buy those flights in the first place I had to put them on my credit card which was dangerously close to maxing out. Many of my grad school peers and teachers dont always seem to realise that some of us literally have no money in the bank. A hand-to-mouth existence is foreign to them.

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