I’ve been reticent to write. I think that I’m afraid that if I write about things, then it will all blow up and the dream will dissipate. It’s more than the very real imposter syndrome that so many academics feel. It is the knowledge that I actually don’t belong here. They’ve made a mistake. I don’t fit.
That’s not to say that I don’t want to be here. I do. I actually like it (despite the feelings of claustrophobia because I’m surrounded by people living on top of me, across from me, and on both sides of me, and the ribbons of asphalt and cars and people that seem never ending, and because I miss my mountain views and my wide-open property that gave me breathing room when I felt overwhelmed). There are lots of things to do, my fellow students are amazing, and the faculty have been supportive. It is a beautiful place, and my apartment has come together. But I don’t fit.
Pshaw, you’re saying. I can hear it. Really.
I’m not saying I’m leaving. I’m not saying I’m not going through with it. I’m just realizing that I am different, that there are reasons why I’ve never felt like I belonged in academia, and why it has always been a struggle. I’m reading an amazing book, Those Winter Sundays: Female Academics and Their Working-Class Parents, and I’ve really begun to realize that all of these feelings of inadequacy, of difference, of an “otherness,” has not been imagined, and I’m not alone in feeling it.
We don’t talk about class issues much in the United States. We (as in the American society) like to pride ourselves in being a classless society. We’re not. It’s clear to those of us who have had to deal with issues of poverty, homelessness, unemployment, and the fears that come with these issues that there is a definite class divide in the United States.
Nowhere is it more apparent than in higher education. This is the realm of the priviledged. For those of us who come from working-class families and who manage to make it into college and who, by some miracle or unnatural act, actually make it into graduate school, the university systems of the United States are filled with the perils of trying to fit in, trying to blend, trying to not be noticed for the interlopers we are. We’re not supposed to be here. Not only do our classmates not understand us and make snide remarks regarding the working class (or even worse, those who have been homeless or who are unemployed), but faculty rarely understand the pressures that accompany a non-traditional student and the struggles that go along with trying to beat the odds to be a part of the academy.
Oftentimes, family and friends don’t even understand this need to get an education (And it’s a need for me. No one struggles for twenty years to get a bachelor’s degree and three years for a master’s degree, works full-time during the entire process, and moves 1600 miles away from everyone they love to pursue something they don’t need. That would be insanity (and maybe that’s really what it is).). We don’t push through the comments made by people who love us (and worry about us), even when they hurt us, for something we don’t need. “It’s only an AA (Associate of Arts) degree.” “Now s/he thinks that s/he is smarter than the rest of us.” “I’m not stupid. I can understand what your research is about.”
I struggle to straddle the fence between my working-class upbringing where few people have more than a high school education, but who are amazing, inspirational, supportive people and the world of academia where most of my classmates have been supported financially and emotionally to attain their degrees, but who speak a different language and understand a different world than those of the working-class.
I don’t think of myself as better or smarter than anyone. If anything, perhaps I’m the one that is lost. My working-class family and friends have a path and understand it. They know what they want and they work hard for it. They are diligent. They are, for the most part, happy with their lives. My academic family can be defined in exactly the same way. Me — I’m the one who spends hours crying over a thesis because it’s not working out right, or who wonders if I’m doing the right thing, or who has given up a very good paying job to move thousands of miles to be unemployed (at least until the semester starts and I begin teaching).
In the next few days, I’m going to be writing a bit about this struggle. I want to talk about my experiences, the people who have inspired me, where I come from, and what I think my upbringing and struggles can do to make me a better educator, a better researcher, and a better person. One reason I’m doing this is because my brother, Shadow, and I have discussed writing a book about these issues (once I get my doctorate — not before). If I start putting down the foundations here, while I’m thinking about them, it will help me in the long run. However, another reason I want to talk about it is because class seems to be a taboo subject in our society generally, and in academia specifically. Oh, sure, we talk about it. We theorize and discuss it ad nauseum. But most people don’t really understand it and make judgments based on theory and not on actual encounters in class struggle. If there is another student out there who is struggling with these issues, or another person who is considering pursuing any degree but is stopping her or himself because of class issues, and my words can help, then this will all be worthwhile.