Working Class Academia: A Story of Hurdles, Closed Doors and Pigeonholes - Christina Purcell
I came into academia relatively late. After years of being a project assistant, punctuated by raising my children, I took the opportunity to embark on an MA programme in my 30s. I hadn’t been formally involved in academic life since my first degree in the late 80s, but my involvement in a Marxist political organisation meant that I was constantly thinking about society, class and inequality. Doing postgraduate study was an extension of what I had already been doing. It was never intended to lead to an academic career. That was something other people did, people from different backgrounds to me.
I’m from a large Irish family, brought up in a council house on the outskirts of London. Careers were never anything that were talked about. My relatives didn’t have careers, they had jobs. I knew my mum was a cleaner at the local post office (in the giddy days when cleaners were part of the same organisation as the men and women who deliver our mail, had decent sick pay and holiday pay and pensions, and went on strike when the posties went on strike). I knew my dad was a scaffolder who sometimes had work and sometimes didn’t. But I had no idea what my aunts and uncles did - apart from the uncle that worked at the MB toy factory and brought us toys when he visited.
Whatever my relatives actually did at work didn’t really matter to anyone in my extended family. The essential thing about having a job was that it let you put food on the table. Me and my cousins never really talked about what we wanted to be, it was taken that we would leave school and find any job we could. For us girls, it was likely to be clerical or secretarial, although my mum did express excitement that one of us could become an “air hostess” - a job she found glamorous and exciting.
My mum was annoyed when I told her I wanted to go to university. She wanted me to be out working and bringing in some money, like my elder siblings. My choice to do A Levels had already caused major upset and accusations of selfishness, and of putting off doing what everyone else had to do - paid work (no doubt partly true). As it turned out, I didn’t get into my university of choice, and didn’t really know how to navigate the clearing system. Lack of advice meant that I spent the next few years working at the local council, doing a job that was of little interest to me and which I deeply resented. It didn’t take me long to figure out that this was what Marx meant when he wrote about alienation.
By the time I got to university (known then as North East London Polytechnic), I had left home. I enjoyed doing my degree, grappling with ideas about society and becoming even more doggedly Marxist (though my future post-doctoral self looks back on these years and bemoans the lack of critical thinking in my approach to my version of Marxism at the time). Education for me was never about a means to an end in terms of a career, it was about having the space to think about big ideas and trying to understand capitalist society and where it was going by looking at where it came from, engaging with grand narratives and class struggle from a historical perspective. It was an exciting place which took me miles away from the crowded council house in which I spent my youth.
After my degree, I returned to my clerical job in local government. One way of viewing my three years an NELP is in terms of James Marcia’s “identity moratorium”, postponing the inevitable return to my “place” in society. However, rather than achieving Marcia’s ideal stage of “identity achievement”, there continued to be a tension between what I did day-to-day to earn a wage and my thirst for knowledge. I reconciled to this by taking a purely instrumental approached to paid employment and fulfilled my intellectual curiosity by pursuing Marxist politics in my “free time”. It never occurred to me to pursuing academia after my degree. Doing a bachelor’s degree was enough of a deviation from the path laid out for me, dictated by my class. For example, my extended family has a large number of cousins, of whom only a handful have degrees. Whereas my partner’s parents, siblings and most of his cousins all went to university. And this disparity continues with the current generation - the children of our cousins.
Postgraduate study wasn’t an easy path due to my general sense that I wasn’t entitled to this special world of academia, and a lack of confidence compared to those I presumed to be from more middle class backgrounds. I nurtured a deep-rooted feeling that people like myself didn’t deserve to do well in the game of life and careers. Still now I feel that my current position as a lecturer is down to luck more that my own capabilities, combined with a fear that it could so easily be taken away from me. One of the most difficult issues I’ve had to grapple with is a lack of confidence in speaking - a key skill for an academic. As a child at a grammar school, I was painfully conscious of how I stood out from class mates (shabby clothes, lack of correct uniform, never having the materials we were supposed to bring in from home). My response was to disappear into the background. Being ignored, not being noticed was a key survival strategy for my psychological well-being. Having to speak in front of others, and therefore being noticed, was the worst thing imaginable.
In my adult life, I have taken steps to overcome this, and have succeeded to some extent. As an early academic, however, I had to push myself a lot further, building my confidence as a speaker in front of both colleagues and students. Lack of confidence is of course common amongst women, but for working class women in an academic environment it can be crippling. Many working class women are confident on their own patch, amongst their community, but within the academic space can clam up. It comes back to a sense of entitlement to speak, whether you feel you have earned the right to contribute to the hallowed academe. This sense of entitlement, of one’s own innate importance, is far more likely to be found amongst people from a better background (economically and socially). Within their family lives they may have been exposed to well-articulated ideas and arguments. It is that bit harder for those of us who, when we return home, find that our work is not well understood. It isn’t a space where we can explore the ideas that we are grappling with intellectually. Of course this is not always the case. Working class environments can be rich in ideas and can enlighten us to key trends in society, and the meanings attributed to social phenomenon. But it’s never presumed.
Being working class, I believe, enhances our empathy for our students, many of whom will come from similar backgrounds. Even those from more financially secure backgrounds may lack the financial independence that I enjoyed when I finally made it to university. I worry lots about my students. I worry about which of them are struggling to pay rents that far exceed the paltry loan they receive to survive on. I worry about which of them go home to an alcoholic or otherwise intoxicated parent, as I did in my family, or to parents burdened with financial worries. What burdens do they carry around with them as they navigate university life? I also worry about the many families who will find financially supporting their children at university an uphill struggle. I wonder how many of my colleagues concern themselves with these issues. This is not to denigrate my colleagues – most are kind, well-meaning people – but for many of them these issues just won’t be on their radar.
For me university was a time of exploration, political activity and fun. For today’s working class students, university is a promised path to better things. There is little time to explore. The focus is on getting the grades they are told will lead to good jobs and good salaries, and trying to juggle this goal with paid employment. University nowadays is a means to a very focused end. Only the kids of the very rich have the luxury that even a working class kid like me had 30 years ago. Creative esoteric subjects, with no clear occupational path, are all but closed off to working class students. Paradoxically, we’ve ended up with more working class kids at university, yet their choices are narrower than ever.
Christina Purcell is a lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University. Find her on twitter @TinaMPurcell.