Our experience of being working class academics is important to our teaching and research by Dr Rachel Broady
I hesitated to write this blog. I want to be recognised as an academic not as the token or pet working class woman in the corner. No one wants to play prolier-than-thou. I realise, though, that our unique experiences matter, they need to be heard and respected and they’re often not. So, I write.
Julie A. Charlip (1995) wrote in This Fine Place So Far From Home about the American experience of working class academics that, while Marx and Engels recognised ‘society splitting into two great hostile camps, two classes directly facing each other,’ America had since split into a plethora of classes – ‘working class, working poor, lower middle class, upper middle class, lower uppers and upper uppers’ – and she found herself not knowing what class she was from (p. 27).
I’ve always known. I graduated a year before This Fine Place was published and my experience of class then and now, despite decades of experience as a journalist, three degrees, the luxury of world travel, remains a distinct part of who I am.
My own undergraduate student experience in the mid-90s was one of sofa surfing, poverty, hardship funds, working too many hours in a bingo hall, struggling to meet deadlines, undiagnosed disability, and missing out entirely on the social part of university life.
My experience as a journalist, working on regional titles and on national newspapers and magazines, was often one of insecure contracts, low pay, no sick pay, no holiday pay, struggling to afford my rent. Today, 51% of leading journalists and 80% of editors were privately educated, research from Sutton Trust revealed. It states that the findings were similar 20 years earlier.
My experience as an academic has been one of temporary contracts, of working at different institutions, of being hourly-paid, as well as gaining a bursary to complete my PhD.
This experienced shaped me and is very much a working class experience. It is the experience had by many of our students. It is the experience of generations of us no matter how class is redefined or how fashionable it might be in academic research to ignore its significance.
It means I’m very aware that not all students (if any, increasingly) enjoy the lazy stereotype experience of boozing, dancing and shagging. They are, instead, exploited by demanding bosses, they fear losing their work and their place at university, they see family members struggling, they watch every penny rather than throw it at bar staff.
I was, unsurprisingly, the first of my family to go to university. My family were capable; both my parents were well-read, intelligent trade union activists, involved in the labour movement, but university simply wasn’t an option.
I graduated with BA Journalism from the University of Central Lancashire (it was Preston Poly when I started). My dad attended my graduation and remarked, ‘it’s a different world’. For my dad, a steel erector who struggled to find regular work for decades and had long periods of unemployment, thought lowly Preston Poly was ‘a different world’.
But it had been a different world for me too.
I was a member of what might now be referred to as the underclass. As a newborn, I was introduced to my dad in Strangeways where he was serving time for robbery. As a young child, I lived in a squat in a derelict terrace during the housing crisis of the 70s. An experience of the working class filmed for a documentary called Goodbye Longfellow Road. As a teenager, I lived on a council estate in one of Manchester’s most deprived areas.
I was simultaneously encouraged to enjoy education and to recognise I’d likely never fully experience it.
Then, finally getting to university, I understood but defied the idea of being neither fish nor fowl. I’d refused to be intimidated by university (imposter syndrome is a nonsense to me), but I was often confused by the culture and felt outed by my interests, my accent, my having to leave early to get to work.
I sometimes missed lectures not because I was lazy (well, not entirely) but because I was exhausted and my head was full of worries: travel expenses, unemployed family members, needing books and equipment, stress, anxiety, wanting or being forced to commit to overtime in what became less and less a part-time job. I’d long been told ‘girls like you don’t become journalists’. My bingo hall colleagues acted like I was some sort of intellectual genius when I talked of studies. Good-humoured jokes were made about my lofty education while I still swore like a docker.
This knowledge can inform my understanding as a lecturer, as a personal tutor, and it has been relevant in conversations with my students over the years; and I predict increasingly so as we head into an economic depression on the back of the coronavirus pandemic.
My experience of being working class, and of poverty, also informs and improves my research. I lead a National Union of Journalists campaign into challenging stereotypes of poverty. I helped develop Fair Press for Tenants, a guide for media workers on reporting social housing, with the See the Person campaign. I was co-researcher on ATD Fourth World and University of Oxford’s global research into the hidden dimensions of poverty, where my lived experience of poverty and my understanding as an academic were equally relevant.
You see, us working class academics don’t observe the working class, we don’t witness being poor. We have lived on council estates, we have fretted about finances, we’ve signed on the dole. We’ve felt intimidated by authority and we’ve stood up to it; navigating complicated conversations with anyone from local politicians to bailiffs, landlords to Job Centre staff. These are life skills and ones which many middle class academics don’t share. They’re life skills that can encourage original and critical thinking and a bold inquisitiveness.
Our lived experience matters to our research and to our knowledge as educators.
And we remain working class. Not just by our culture, lived experience and histories, but economically too. Many of us are on temporary contracts and, not owning property, not having savings, and with no access to funds when our contracts end, we face unemployment and Universal Credit along with non-academic workers.
This is not entirely removed from the experience of our parents who never attended university.
As class-based research has lost some significance in academia, it’s essential that the class of our academics and their skill set as teachers and researchers is not just consciously recognised but prioritised. Only by doing so can we fully recognise and prioritise the experience and skills of our working class students.
ATD Fourth World (2019). Understanding Poverty In All Its Forms. Available at: https://atd-uk.org/projects-campaigns/understanding-poverty/ [Accessed: 18 June 2020]
Barney Dews, C L and Leste Law C (1995). This Fine Place So Far From Home: Voices of Academics from the Working Class. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Fair Press for Tenants Guide (2020). [online] See the Person Campaign. Available at: https://seetheperson.org/research/ [Accessed: 18 June 2020].
Kirby, P (2016). Leading People: The Educational Backgrounds of the UK Professional Elite. Sutton Trust. https://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Leading-People_Feb16.pdf [Accessed: 18 June 2020.]
National Union of Journalists and Church Action on Poverty (2017). NUJ Guide to Reporting Poverty. Available at: https://www.nuj.org.uk/documents/nuj-guide-to-reporting-poverty/ [Accessed: 18 June 2020.]