The Trials of being a Working Class Academic in Social Work: the Spoils and the Apple Cart – the politics of compliance and complaint by Caroline Bald
I have a thing for words.
I struggle with the word ‘academic’. I have called myself by every other name I can think of and nothing feels quite right; lecturer, educator, researcher, teacher, social worker – my twitter profile is littered with labels. Academic sounds ‘other’ and ‘above’ to my ears. It is not simply another sorry case of imposter syndrome, it is an issue of positioning that takes me back to the origins of social work (Jane Addams and minimising the space between them/us) and critical pedagogy (Paulo Freire and learning as emancipatory). So for me, with my fourth year in academia under my belt, I continue to harbour both a feeling of sitting in the Prefect’s Room and an ethical value base that wills me to never forget it.
I struggle with the term ‘working class’. I have called myself working class for as long as I was aware of the term. Before then, I learned life lessons of ‘them and us’, ‘don’t get above your station’, and ‘how you see things is never as they are’. I lapped up second wave feminism with calls to cancel school cooking lessons and the mantra that I could do whatever I wanted as long as I put my mind to it. I won in the eyes of social mobility and widening participation. My mum cried at my graduations and tells her friends I am a lecturer, albeit 400 miles away, and no mention of teaching social work (she preferred it when I taught criminology). I have the spoils of my climb – a mortgage, full fridge, never needing to check I have enough in my bank, volunteering. And yet, I’m not quite at home, my talk of ‘haem’ sounds Dickensian romanticism and I still go through a process of sitting on that fence whenever I encounter discrimination. To stand up is to stand out. By all means, upset the apple cart but be prepared to be picking up the apples or as a fellow working class academic told me: “fill your boots, rock the boat but you better know how to swim”.
I have been conditioned to fear questioning. I have no safety net. The weaponisation of speaking out and being labelled as ‘aggressive’ or ‘difficult’ sends a clear message: silence may be complicit, but to complain is to rebel and to protect is radical. Individualising behaviour through stigma and othering means that wellbeing has become a battleground for working class academics. More working class academics are in precarious contracts, more facing disciplinary action, more signed off sick, and more leaving with non-disclosure agreements preventing any of these statements to be other than conjecture drawn from a number of years asking the question: is wellbeing political?
Let’s face it, we have had a few months now to reflect on language, power and injustice. Covid has morphed from virus to viral with social justice and human rights highlighting the power of language and space in ways I’ve not seen before. This last fortnight began with a rant or three, reading Prof Imogen Tyler’s Stigma: The Machinery of Inequality (…”seeks to make it impossible to think of stigma separately from power”), revisiting Marshall Berman’s The Politics of Authenticity (“The personal is political”), then sitting with Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny (“in politics, being deceived is no excuse”). I read @FraserMycroft’s blogpost No Man’s Land in the same week I watched the final episode of the television adaptation of Normal People, the UK Prime Minister spoke of getting back the nation back to ‘tennis doubles’ & picnics of six while the US President underlined class racism with ‘start looting, start shooting’ before paving the way for martial law with a photo op and tear gas, echoing Florida Governor Walter E. Headley’s 1967 proclamation, himself added “we don’t mind being accused of police brutality’. To round the week off, I was asked if I describe myself as ‘feminist’ and Professor Cornel West spoke of the ‘precious poor’ and the shit show of a capitalist state in free fall. There is as reason why the UK and the US lead on national covid deaths per capita – both through neoliberal politics have sought to displace working class identity into us all wanting a piece of the pie, raising aspirations, widening participation, social mobility.
The carrot is fixed to the stick – that’s how it works – and as we know, the purpose is for me to chase it and chase it and never quite get there – this is how I feel in my fourth year as a working class academic. I started off wanting to join it to make change from within then I found I needed to speak a new language to be heard then still I have my accent marked out or ‘pastime’ discussion designed to check out then check out; travel, study, friends. In Glasgow, this was the ‘what does your dad do?’ Or ‘what football team do you support?’ – code for religion. Now, I am excluded from conversations of football (sexism – my mention of specific moments of footie brilliance met with steely looks). I am excluded from academic shuffling by paying for conferences in advance (anyone else finding online conferences a boon even though we were told they are too complicated to arrange?). I have been told my life is ‘complicated’ which I still have no idea why – other than I am a working class single parent.
The thing is I grew up under apartheid in 80s South Africa, full of private schools, swimming pools and bomb drills that primed me to see when my voice was too loud or too proud. White privilege edged with gendered deference. Class was not discussed. Mention of my childhood seems to spark eye movement recalibrating my ‘position’ like a working class colleague who told me she keeps a photo of her sister’s idyllic Loire Valley gite on her office wall to confuse the ‘bourgeoisie’– chuckling that she hates her sister. I don’t feel ‘imposter syndrome’ does the experience of being a working class academic justice. I own my space – but I regularly experience active displacement in what seems to be an arms race for limited spoils.
I mention my upbringing because I fear we risk speaking of working class academics as a homogenous group. I know my experience of being a female working class academic has been different to my male working class colleagues. My black female working class colleagues have shared they have had different experiences to me. As working class academics, I ask we consider the bruises caused by repeatedly hitting an intersectional class ceiling – let alone glass panelling ourselves into one identity versus another. Why the micro aggressions, symbolic violence: my accent needing ‘interpreting’, why do I need to cut my hair if I want promotion, why should I not know what Delft is? (How many readers will google that one?) The weekly whip round for flowers? The bring and share lunches that insist on a home cooked soup sans when only kettle chips will do. All true stories and all coded shots across my bows: telling me with chilling middle-class polite speak to play nicely.
So in a time when politics has never been so personal and when stigma power has never been more structural in education, I appreciate that sense of isolation a ‘no man’s land’ brings when speaking out becomes individualised, let alone weaponised against the speaker. I therefore ask that we consider Peter McLaren’s call to rethink critical pedagogy and collectively agree that what we are willing to stand up to and out for, while appreciating speaking out comes in many forms, including embracing that imposter syndrome – as the other Marx said “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member” – just saying, bites apple.
Image source Source: Andrew Johnson, Unsplash, (andrew-johnson-3JVnhF5kSKk-unsplash.jpg).