Class in Academia

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December 24, 2012 by badacademic2

I saw this link on facebook from a few different friends and academic bloggers. It’s hard to summarize so go read it at the NY Times site, while it lasts. The title says a lot: “For Many Poor Students, Leap to College Ends in a Hard Fall”.

This post is about my reaction and what it made me realize/re-acknowledge about academia. I had to stop from crying after reading it, in part because it awakened so many memories in me. I failed. But I think I realized what’s important to me, and now I just need to figure out how to make it work.


I spent high school working hard so I could get away from my own “island”. I grew up thinking, for what reason, I don’t know, that if I worked hard enough and was “smart” enough, I would get a scholarship and college would be free. Filling out FAFSAs and other forms, and the fact that some places weren’t Need-Blind, really drained me. I spent my lunches in HS calling the numbers on those forms to ask questions, using the free long-distance in a kind teacher’s classroom, to figure that crap out. I was the first to attend college. I had no help with my applications, aside from teachers reading the personal statement. I say this not to add to the discourse of “I did it on my own, I rock, those girls who “failed” in that article could have too if they really wanted to” of the article’s comments section. Because I find those comments repulsive. I say it because I know, in part, some of what they experienced. There was no one to ask for help. There were parents angry I was applying to places that were far away, “eliteness” mattered none. There were fights with my parents when they wanted to know why this school wanted to know how much they made, and copies of their taxes. I should get money for being smart, not for being poor, they said.

When my acceptances came back with different aid packages, I was sad that I didn’t get that free money/scholarships I had dreamed about. In fact, there were lots of loans and the “family contribution” they had calculated looked hilarious. Really, my parents were supposed to spend that ginormous amount? And I was supposed to spend all 100% of my meager savings from working throughout high school in that first semester? Umm, how was I supposed to pay for things like food and flights to and from college? For 4 years?? How wise is it to spend all your savings in one go? Sounded stupid to me.

Right before those letters came in, one of my parents was laid off. I was trying to remember today who gave me that fortuitous advice: Have a meeting with the financial aid office and let them know about the job loss, they should re-calculate. It must have been some teacher? I didn’t know to ask. I knew to be grateful for what I was given. There were places that weren’t even need-blind for Pete’s sake. (Does that even exist anymore?). I did, and they re-adjusted my aid. Loans were reduced and almost everything was covered.

But this is how I went to college, naive and not knowing how the system works. I had grown up helping my parents with that whole English thing, call this place and tell them this. Not with them calling for me. All of a sudden the memories came flooding back. In college, I became disabled. And had a horrible time adjusting. My parents didn’t know what to do. I would call them crying, and they wouldn’t know how to help. And then my roommate had what I considered at the time a silly event in her life. She met a fellow student at the dining hall one night, had a brief conversation, and that night the student died of some unknown condition. She was sad and didn’t want to go to class. She was sad, she told me, because that student was probably thinking of her before falling asleep and dying. She wanted to go to the funeral and tell the parents. I was in shock. First, you don’t miss class. And to travel to some other state to this kid’s funeral that you just met seemed odd to me. It wasn’t family. And you don’t miss class. See, I had gone to school being told that attendance was super important, and you can’t miss a test or do make-up work, even if you’re sick, because you can’t miss class in college, the professors aren’t nice like HS teachers who have to accept “excused” absences or whatever. And what about when you get a job? You can’t miss work, you’ll get behind, who will do your job for you, who will save it for you, yada yada yada. And I bought it. When I was really sick, I would stress and beg and often not be able to go to school to take a test, because what would I do if I got the flu in college? And the teachers always seemed to be doing me a favor, because they knew I was smart and thus serious, and wasn’t faking being sick, so I could make it up this one time. But I legitimately thought this never happened, and you could never miss class in college or days at your job. And my experiences seemed to prove this to me. What seemed like idiotic to me, ie working a food-prep job during high school while still having a cold or cough or whatever, because I mean, aren’t you going to get everyone else sick? made total sense to the manager. That didn’t matter, having people at work did. Which is why I went to work sick at times. And why I never asked for a 10 cent raise or anything, I expected that if I worked hard, they would notice and reward me with it. My raises were automatic whenever the minimum wage was increased.

So going to college was like going to a foreign country and culture. People actually shopped at Kmart ironically, not with shame. And bought things from those fancy catalogs. I had never heard of J Crew before college; yes, I was sheltered. And they knew to advocate for themselves  which is what the Emory people expected of Angelica, in the article. I grew up not advocating for myself, seeing my parents not advocate for themselves, and believing that those people in power are to be respected  so what they say must be true. I grew up loving learning, learned and accepted what all those teachers/bosses said, and expecting college to be lots of learning fun times, because if you went to college, it was to learn, since it wasn’t “free” like K-12. So here I am, in a foreign culture and place, newly disabled. And my roommate has a crisis. And her parents called the Dean. I didn’t even know what the Dean did. And she explained, that her parents spoke with the Dean, who knew she was having a hard time with this death, and so they spoke with her professors, to give her a break from classes for a few days, and to go to the funeral.

I was in shock. While she was telling me this story, all I could think was, “You can DO that?” So I called my most English-speaking parent, and asked that the Dean be called. I explained what a Dean was, what to say, etc. Because I needed help. My new disability made classes harder and I had no local support. So these chance things, the unknown HS teacher who said to ask Financial Aid for help, this roommate whose middle/upper class privilege showed me that I could and should ask for things, combined with changing majors and finding a real mentor is what helped me “succeed” in college.

And so I thought I would go to grad school. Because of that mentor. He advocated for me when my disability made some people question my abilities. Because of that major and the work I did. In part because I wanted to mentor students like me, students of color, students for whom the system was not created, like my mentor did. I saw the problems in academia. I saw the culture of hidden knowledge that you are just supposed to know, that is vital to “succeed” in how one is meant to succeed. That working class, or disabled, or women, or people of color, etc don’t often know exists. And so I thought I was prepared for grad school. But I didn’t quite get the memo about the secret assumed knowledge about what is “proper” behavior.

I saw this recently, and thought, YES. This is exactly how I feel sometimes/most times.

“Graduate school is not education. It is socialization. It is about learning to behave, about mastering a rhetorical and discursive etiquette as mind-blowingly arcane as table manners at a state dinner in 19th Century Western Europe. Graduate school is cotillion for eggheads.”


And I’m tired. I’m tired of fighting for every single thing. But then I remind myself, I want to help and mentor students. And that’s what they, ie the system, wants. That people who don’t fit, who call bullshit on the socialization petty politics crap, to get tired and leave. And I’m tired of fighting them all the time. And yet, I can’t leave. They can’t win. I have to figure something out, about how to make this all work.


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