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.