Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The scholar and the fisherman

The conference that brought me to Vancouver was a meeting of contingent academic workers from across North America. The majority of the attendees were part-time university instructors, which is to say, the underclass of the professoriate, and therefore the thing that every graduate student with scholarly ambitions secretly fears becoming.

The event began with the customary opening address. The invited speaker, whose name I will refrain from dropping, began his working life in the fishing industry, rising through his union’s ranks to become one of Canada’s top labour leaders. As he approached the podium, I wondered what he would have to say to a crowd of overeducated if underpaid university professors.

Cheerily acknowledging the occupational difference between himself and his audience, the speaker proceeded to deliver a firebrand speech on the effects of neo-liberal economic policies on post-secondary education. He then effortlessly shifted his focus to Canada’s growing class divide, noting that social inequities have sprouted like weeds wherever government has abdicated its interventionist role. He concluded by reminding the audience of the obstacles that are faced by the children of working-class Canadians in their pursuit of higher education, and warned of a future in which only the wealthy will have a place in the university.

I was completely floored by the speech. More to the point, I was moved by it, not because it told me anything I didn’t already know, but because it felt like someone was standing up for me.

People don’t talk much about class in graduate school, but it’s always there, just under the surface of the other things people talk about. Parents who are lawyers, architects, or professors. Artistic aunts and brothers who fly airplanes. Passing mentions of family vacations spent at ski resorts, or discovering the treasures of the Hermitage. Recollections of private school escapades and summer experience programs at MIT. Cottages. Country houses. Maids.

Since starting my M.A., I have met exactly two people whose parents were blue-collar labourers. One of them, upon learning that my father was a steelworker, practically flew across a crowded party to talk to me. “Wow!” she exclaimed, a little drunkenly. “It’s so good to meet another one!” At the time, I didn’t fully understand why my father’s occupation should provoke such excitement. I have a much keener sense of this now.

For all the intellectual camaraderie that is shared at the university, and for all the talk of social diversity, it’s hard not to feel isolated as a student from a low-income family. Your loved ones don’t always understand what it is you are trying to do with your life, which can leave you feeling uncomfortably like a traitor. Your colleagues, for their part, don’t always understand the life experiences that preceded your entry into the university, which can leave you feeling as though you don’t quite belong. I’ve often wondered what it would be like to be able to talk about my studies with someone I’m related to, to ask for their advice or for financial help. I’ve also wondered what the university would look like if the average dean had worked her way through school, and for some years before.

In any case, these were the things I was thinking about as I exited the lecture hall.

Soon afterward, I noticed the speaker sitting on a bench in the hallway, talking to someone on his cell phone. For a split-second, I considered approaching him to offer a word of thanks, but I decided this was a ridiculous idea and went to get a cup of coffee instead. When I returned, he was still sitting on the bench, but he wasn’t on his cell phone anymore. I couldn’t talk my feet out of walking toward him.

“Hi,” I heard myself say. “I’m a working-class student. Thanks for giving a shit.” He smiled and asked me to join him on the bench. From there, we talked for almost half an hour.

In retrospect, I realize that I’ve desperately needed to say those words out loud to someone, and to hear a sense of kinship in their response. I also realize that politics, at least as I understand it, is about precisely this form of connection. At least, it should be.


Sparky said...

Wow...this post is like a piece of my own psyche...the school you go to, you realize, makes this even worse...

Me:The Sequel said...

The most interesting, enlightened and educated (in the very real sense of the word) of my acquaintances actually hail from very working class backgrounds. And, they also frequently complained about not being supported by their families, or even teased, for scholarly pursuits - infuriating.

I knew someone who grew up very poor and from a blue-collar environment who got herself a graduate degree and then proceeded to be a bit of a social climber...never succeeded in overcoming her unfortunate and unjustified inferiority complex - in short she's quite the twat - but still, I admire her for getting whatever is hers in this world despite monumental obstacles.

xanthium said...

I don't know, I think academia is extra appealing to people of working class/lower class backgrounds that have done well in school because it seems like more of a meritocracy than your average job (you know, there's a sense that you just need to be smart and dedicated). Wierdly enough, it also seems more secure because you follow a clear career path to some kind of middle class life. Besides, otherwise after college you just end up in some kind of crappy service job in an office somewhere with all the other people whose parents don't know anybody. So yeah, life is hard for the upwardly mobile.