By James Anderson
Lately, in an Introduction to Cultural Studies class I’m teaching at the University of California, Riverside, in between oral surgery and putting in work for lecture duties at another institution, I’ve been discussing socioeconomic class on – and as satirized as well as normalized by – The Simpsons. For this multi-part lecture focused on the class dynamics of everyone’s favorite animated sitcom (and consistent source for witty repartee, now spanning decades), I’m drawing on the chapter, “‘Upper-Middle-Lower Class Types’: Socioeconomic Class on The Simpsons,” in the book, “The Simpsons, Satire, and American Culture,” by Matthew Henry. I’ve been discussing early series episodes like the one in which Lisa Simpson sings a working class folk song while her dad and his co-workers at the Montgomery Burns-owned nuclear power plant are out on strike. I’ve covered how the show has skewered unbridled greed, usually with Mr. Burns standing in as the embodiment of rapacious capitalism. I’ve also highlighted, as Henry does in his chapter, how the show increasingly started to reproduce the sort of middle class mythology popular in the US by positioning the Simpson family as normal vis-à-vis the “white trash” imagery on display with characters like Cletus and Brandine who, sans additional social commentary, often become the butt of the joke.
Covering this material in a university setting got me thinking about class divisions within academe. In his book, Henry noted that there had not previously been any sustained analysis of socioeconomic class on The Simpsons. I realized that, to my knowledge, there are few (if any) sustained analyses of socioeconomic class in higher education. This blog entry will not be such an analysis. I hope, however, it can provide a springboard for further inquiry on the subject.
To be clear, it is not as though there are no existing critiques of class in academia. In fact, if you know where to look, read and listen, there is no shortage of such criticism. Among the ever-growing ranks of contingent faculty, there is a growing critical consciousness of the two-tier (sometimes written as two-tiered) system separating full-time, tenured and tenure-track professors from their hapless colleagues employed on short-term contracts, without serious job security and frequently on a part-time basis as adjuncts (at multiple institutions, often enough). I’ve written about the pedagogical and human cost of that two-tier class structure – more than once.
But, obviously, there are other significant aspects to the class structure of higher education. More and more college labor has become disconcertingly ephemeral, as evidenced by the high turnover and burnout rate for adjunct faculty who – despite often doing the bulk of teaching and having the most frequent in-class interaction with undergraduates – are paradoxically positioned as extraneous and expendable. They (we) tend to have little-to-no say in departmental decisions. In what remains of shared governance, little is shared with them (us). And since many (of us) have no offices or are asked to share offices with other lecturers, the professorial stability that students expect and deserve is severely lacking.
The issue of ephemerality extends beyond the two-tier – or, some would say, multi-tier – academic class structure. Graduate student workers, for example, are in inherently ephemeral – and yet also unnecessarily precarious – positions. I teach in the UC system, and UC graduate students rarely know if they will have a Teaching Assistant assignment until a week or two before a term starts. Many do not get TA assignments some quarters (UC Riverside is on a quarter, rather than a semester, schedule), which means they do not get the stipend or the tuition coverage that goes along with it.
A few graduate students will go on to become tenure-line professors. A few will find work outside of academia. Many might go on to live the #AdjunctLife, at least for a while. Given this situation, I can’t help but wonder whether grad students would benefit from taking that reality into account when organizing and making demands during unionization efforts. Of course, class solidarity between lecturers and graduate student workers is never guaranteed; both are frequently desperate for instructional positions, and graduate student workers sometimes work as TAs under the supervision of lecturers, as happens with certain courses in the UC system. In fact, the issue of class solidarity and the possibilities and possible pitfalls of cross-class solidarity in higher education are worth a closer look.
Before focusing on that, though, I think we benefit by taking a step back and considering how the fabled “myth of meritocracy” that permeates the consciousness of many in the US can function to justify otherwise illegitimate and unnecessary social and economic hierarchies, including those that define higher education. Individuals atop those hierarchies have attained their status through merit, so the story goes. That ideological perspective omits any critical assessment of how those hierarchies function and how those hierarchies often function to concentrate capital, perks, confidence and decision-making power at the top while denying those at the bottom serious say over policies and practices that affect them.
This meritocratic ideology is especially pervasive in academia, and understandably so. There are intellectual barriers aspiring scholars must break in order to earn the degrees that stand in as evidence of capability when it comes to teaching, research and writing. That system is riddled with problems, to be sure, including class striations that make for vastly different degree-earning experiences and barriers to achievement. Nevertheless, a perfectly functioning meritocratic system can still fail miserably when it comes to elevating humanity and maximizing the potential of all individuals. Even in a (nonexistent) state of perfect equality of opportunity, if the opportunities on offer entail rising up the ranks to obtain positions wherein you exploit or wield unjustifiable power over others, the system remains an affront on individual and community well-being. If that same meritocratic hierarchy denies some people the opportunity to flourish as active, participating agents on the job and in society, we should regard it as anti-democratic and antithetical to the common good.
While tenure-line and tenured faculty arguably earn their relatively more comfortable, affluent and secure positions, at least in some sense, the achievement ideology associated with that process can still serve to explain away the subordinate, precarious and far more seriously exploited positions of contingent academics. The two-tier system comes to appear acceptable insofar as the dominant vantage point sees on the bottom tier as having failed to achieve. That angle conveniently overlooks the myriad examples of adjuncts carrying far more pedagogical responsibility and sometimes even accumulating far superior publication records when compared with their well-heeled professorial counterparts. Yet, the deeper issue is the normalization of dehumanizing conditions and of the class structure responsible for reproducing those conditions. The ideology undergirding that class structure helps stymie the cross-class solidarity among academics that could promote the common good, which is arguably one of the more important aims of education in a decent society. The hegemony of that structure makes attempts at cross-class organizing exceedingly difficult, and in some cases surely counterproductive.
Moreover, if similar ideological and meritocratic assumptions keep graduate students from aligning themselves with the academic underclass, the situation is even more troubling. As suggested, the dominance of the two-tier system all but ensures some of those working as teaching and research assistants today will inevitably find themselves amidst that contingent underclass tomorrow – unless those problematic presuppositions are overcome.
To be clear, unexamined meritocratic values can also elide the different academic realities for those who come from poor, working or lower-middle class backgrounds when compared with their more affluent colleagues. David Graeber, a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics and one of the early organizers of Occupy Wall Street, wrote in a footnote to his 2015 book, “The Utopia of Rules,” about his own germane experiences. “As one of the few students of working-class origins in my own graduate program,” he wrote, “I watched in dismay as professors first explained to me that they considered me the best student in my class—even, perhaps, in the department—and then threw up their hands claiming there was nothing that could be done as I languished with minimal support—or during many years none at all, working multiple jobs, as students whose parents were doctors, lawyers, and professors seemed to automatically mop up all the grants, fellowships, and student funding.” (A bit of tangentially related shameless self-promotion: I gave a talk at a symposium a few years back discussing that book and quoting comments like the above.)
Graeber’s experience highlights the importance of what Pierre Bourdieu called “cultural capital,” a concept with origins in the study of social reproduction in relation to education. Bourdieu claimed that the concept emerged “as a theoretical hypothesis which made it possible to explain the unequal scholastic achievement of children originating from the different social classes, by relating academic success, i.e., the specific profits which children from the different classes and class fractions can obtain in the academic market, to the distribution of cultural capital between the classes and class fraction.” I like to think of cultural – and social – capital as including all of the class-correlated tastes and preferences accrued, as well as all the accumulated sociocultural knowledge and all the personal networks, connections and social relations that flow from exposure, upbringing, family life and everyday activities in a class society. Cultural and social capital undoubtedly play a crucial role in reproducing the class structure – the structure in higher education and that which is characteristic of society more generally.
Henry, the author mentioned at the beginning of this piece, rightfully stresses a related notion. That is, when analyzing class, we should not reduce the phenomenon to only economic considerations. Both the social and economic dimensions of class are important in understanding these hierarchies and stratifications among human beings. Both are important in understanding not only class divisions in higher education. Accounting for both dimensions can also aid in understanding how higher education, as an institution, has historically helped generate consent for the capitalist State and capitalist economic conditions, while rendering the consequent class antagonisms that State ensures superficially legitimate. French theorist Louis Althusser considered education an example of an “Ideological State Apparatus” for this reason. Those who undertake future sustained analyses of socioeconomic class in academia would thus be remiss not to contextualize higher education’s class divisions in relation to the social, economic and cultural components that have historically constituted class outside the Ivory Tower.
That need not come at the expense of interrogating academic labor and analyzing academia as a workplace. Another categorical concept comes in handy here. Michael Albert, a proponent of what he calls “Participatory Economics” and the publisher of ZNet, has used the term “coordinator class” to refer to the roughly 20 percent of the population who monopolize the kind of empowering work in society that confers confidence, prestige and decision-making ability. He suggests that the existing system ensures the majority of workers perform more rote and tedious work of a less-than empowering nature that does not typically involve making impactful decisions on the job and does not provide many opportunities to cultivate creativity and confidence.
You could say “coordinator class” positions, in contrast, bestow forms of social and cultural capital. They also, it is safe to assume, are occupied by individuals who accumulated social and cultural capital and otherwise benefited from their positions in the socioeconomic system earlier in life. Common “coordinator class” professions include doctors, lawyers, (some!) professors, various corporate executives, upper-level managers and the like. Albert notes that members of this “coordinator class” tend to pay themselves more and often believe they deserve their privileged positions and better pay. There is, he adds, a modicum of truth to that because of the dominant class organization and structure. What is more, the educational system in the US, in the main, teaches about four-fifths of the population “to endure boredom and take orders,” he asserts.
I would argue the dominant system of higher education increasingly reflects the division between the “coordinator class” and others. The two-tier system and the assumptions that professional-managerial tenured and tenure-line faculty must hold, at least in part, in order for that system to remain intact, offer evidence of this. Those assumptions reflect commonplace presuppositions held by members of the “coordinator class,” which include particular beliefs that help sustain the class system. These are beliefs about being more worthy when it comes to their appreciably higher salaries, beliefs about being more capable and thus more deserving of greater workplace influence, and beliefs about doing more significant work and thus being appropriately rewarded with better job security and remuneration. It hardly requires stating that the work considered more significant is customarily more empowering and creative labor via service on committees, course creation/design and research/publishing in areas of personal interest to the author.
Granted, even adjuncts tend to have a little more autonomy on the job than do those in plenty of other occupations and, in general, contingent faculty no doubt perform some empowering pedagogical work. That does not negate the class schism that has come to typify higher education in the last few decades. Some 73 percent of college instructors are now off the tenure track. That number closely approximates Albert’s estimate that 80 percent of the workforce endure less-than-empowering circumstances on the job.
Another perhaps not-so-coincidental correlation requires unpacking. The shift toward contingent instructional labor in higher education that started several decades ago has coincided with the increasing cost of tuition for college students over the years. These interrelated trends highlight an important point. If we are to conduct any thorough analysis of socioeconomic class in higher education, we must recall those who come to our classrooms to learn.
Now, along with rising tuition costs has come massive increases in student loan debt and in the number of students attending college – factors which no doubt affect the class dynamics associated with education and social reproduction. The post-millennial generation of young persons – sometimes called “Gen Z” or “iGen” – are on track to become the most educated generation of young adults yet. No longer is higher education strictly a reserve for the most affluent among the middle class. It is also no longer as strong a guarantor of upward socioeconomic mobility. Like many millennial instructors, I still carry a good deal of student debt with me, as will the growing ranks of Gen Z intent on becoming college professors (maybe a few are already working off the tenure track, trying to pay back the obscene levels of debt they have been saddled with). A recent report from the US Census Bureau noted that young adults these days are more likely to have a bachelor’s degree than were their Baby Boomer counterparts circa 1980, but young adults today are also more likely to live in poverty and earn less than were young adults about four decades ago.
As someone who teaches in both the University of California system and in the California Community Colleges system, it would be hard to ignore the high number of first-generation college students at present, many who start in the latter and go on to pursue four-year degrees within the former. In a 2018 article published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, Antony Manstead drew from literature on the psychology of social class to suggest that the prevalence of middle class norms at universities and liberal arts colleges in the US can leave first-generation, working class students feeling out of place and performing poorly. The interdependent conceptions of the self and related motives for going to school (e.g. giving back to the community) oft shared by those students clash with the prevailing university culture, which celebrates ideals of independence and related motives, as Manstead observed. Again, working class academics, including (and perhaps especially) at the undergraduate level, have a vastly different educational experience than aspiring scholars coming from a higher socioeconomic status.
In my view, though, our objective should not simply be to make first-generation, impoverished and working class students more comfortable inside the hallowed halls of academe. Just doing that does little to address the high cost of tuition and fees, which leave those young persons with little choice but to take out inordinate student loans just to afford college; those loans then leave young persons encumbered with debt when they finish (or drop out of) school and enter an unreliable economy. While it might make the lauded model of meritocracy a little less of a myth, and while it could open the doors to upward social mobility for a few, creating ideal conditions of economic diversity alone will not address the underlying injustice and reality of class today.
In fact, it could reinforce the meritocratic ideology that helps perpetuate class society. In “The Trouble with Diversity,” Walter Benn Michaels wrote that “what makes the notion of economic diversity look ridiculous is also what makes it so attractive: it reassures us that the problem of poverty is like the problem of race and that the way to solve it is by appreciating rather than minimizing our differences.” The author’s contrarian viewpoint may minimize the transformative power of intersectional analysis and organizing, but Michaels was right to argue for a far more revolutionary goal. We should be trying to ultimately transcend “economic diversity” and realize classlessness inside higher education and out.
Preparing the ground for a broad-based movement to overcome institutionalized socioeconomic class from inside higher education can involve greater commitment to teach about class in the classroom, as I alluded to doing – if, admittedly, I’ve managed that with varying degrees of success and certainly with some failures along the way. It can also involve more thoroughgoing, radically contextualized analyses of class conflicts within academia. Readers can try discussing those conflicts in relation to the reproduction of class society writ large. Moreover, I would argue the historical agency of “déclassé intellectuals,” the downwardly mobile yet well-educated sectors of the population known for agitating and occasionally inciting social change, reminds us of another component that could prove critical to the praxis of present-day class struggles. Déclassé educators, capable of drawing on personal experience to engage in a mode of critical public pedagogy geared toward classlessness, probably have a lot to teach and to learn from the tech-savvy young adults who sit in college classrooms today and face dismal life prospects post-graduation. Fledgling movements could likely receive a much-needed boost with continued dialogue, solidarity and collaborative organizing between the two. Future sustained analyses of socioeconomic class apropos of academia could study and assist such movements.
James Anderson is an adjunct professor working in Southern California. He is from Illinois but now tries each semester to cobble together classes to teach at various SoCal colleges and universities. He has recently taught classes at Riverside City College and at the University of California, Riverside, and he is teaching at the California Rehabilitation Center during the fall 2019 semester as part of the Norco College prison education program. He has also worked as a freelance writer for several outlets.