"There is nothing more dangerous to power than a working class person with a thirst for knowledge" - The Account of Colin Burnett

It was a very proud day for both myself and my family when I was accepted to study BSc (Hons) Public Sociology at Queen Margaret University in Musselburgh, which is located outside of Edinburgh. When I attended my first day, I was, I have to say, reminded of the theme tune from the TV sitcom Cheers - ‘’Nobody knew my name, and nobody was glad I came’’. This feeling never stirred from any negative experience I had on my first day. But was indeed, a symptom of the insecurity I felt coming from a working-class background, entering higher education. The arena of university never appeared a natural environment for me. As most of the guys I grew up with entered blue collar occupations, going to university appeared an alien choice.

See, growing up, I felt I was part of a lost tribe, a condition of being working class in a post-affluent society. The possibilities available to my generation, such as going to university, are in opposition to the choices available to my grandparents. Men and women who worked either in the mining pits or in the factories. I knew pursuing a trade wasn’t a viable option for me as I have a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome (AS) and Dyspraxia. But through the encouragement and support I received from my parents, I recognised my academic potential. I was spurred on by them to go onto university.

I was very fortunate in the choice of university I made and the subject I chose to study. Throughout my time at Queen Margaret University I was supported immensely by all my lecturers and other members of staff. These people always believed in my academic potential, and it was their belief that gave me the motivation to succeed in my studies. I never directly encountered any negativity from being working class, except from the self-doubt I initially internalised from being a working class student. During class discussions, I felt in some ways inferior to my middle class peers. I couldn’t imagine myself being able to engage them academically in a debate. Places I had read about they had been to, and some books they had read I had never even heard of. It just seemed their cultural exposure had situated them in a more advanced position to succeed in academia. But as I got to know my lecturers on a more personal level I soon realised that they shared a similar working-class background to myself. This led me to the realisation that my potential to thrive in academia wasn’t limited, but instead, it was limitless.

As I undertook my sociological apprenticeship. I was able to engage with the subject in a way that gave me meaning and understanding of the barriers I had to overcome. Through reading the works of Pierre Bourdieu and Paulo Freire, to name a few. This enabled me to identify and decipher the anxiety I experienced from being working class in a dominantly middle-class environment. For example, my natural tongue is urban Scots, a vernacular which is widely recognised as the language of the working-class in Scotland. But when I entered university or other formal settings my vernacular would deviate its self to the more socially esteemed standard English spoken by the middle classes. This important use of language was documented in the work of Pierre Bourdieu, so not only was I learning about this topic, I actually had first-hand experience of how this identity crisis can surface amongst working-class students. So, in some ways, being working class helped me to engage with public sociology with a sense of realism that may not have been open to my middle-class peers. I was living and encountering some of the issues I was studying.

A lot of the barriers I faced during my studies stemmed from sources out with the university itself. These factors impacted my ability to remain focused on my studies. I lost my dad not long before I undertook my degree and my mum passed away during my final year. Obviously, these were the most traumatic events of my life, but, again, the support I received from my lecturers and the university was overwhelming.

As I previously mentioned, I have Asperger Syndrome. I claim state benefits, including housing benefit, and Personal Independence Payment (PIP). My benefits were stopped in my final year, so I ended up in rent arrears and had to attend a tribunal to see whether my PIP benefit would be reinstated. The title of the hearing ‘tribunal’ is misleading. It was in fact, more of a trial with a judge presiding over proceedings. The way I was made to feel in the hearing left me somewhat in disbelief. I was made to feel as if I should apologise for being born with AS and it was evident that the state equates disability with stupidity. My attendance at university somehow appeared to be an issue. As the tribunal panel never seemed able to understand a person with disabilities can achieve just as much, if not more, than someone born without a disability. The financial hardships I faced were something my middle-class peers could never understand. They didn’t have to rely on the state for support, and thus were given a clearer space to succeed at University. As much as my situation caused me a lot of stress, the experience reaffirmed my belief that the working class must produce more of its own academics.  The more working-class academics active, the greater potential there is for progression, aiding the positioning of the working class as producers of social change. Not merely relegated to being passive spectators.

My advice, to any potential working-class student who is considering entering higher education, is don’t let your postcode decide your life chances. Take control of your own destiny and use education as a vehicle to achieve what you want to in life, both, to the benefit of yourself and the wider working class. I truly feel there is nothing more dangerous to the powers that be than a working-class individual who has a thirst for knowledge, and a desire to learn. And even though our middle-class peers may have stronger networks available to them that can present gateways to more opportunities, we all have the right, and indeed the potential, to succeed in any subject matter we choose to explore.

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.

When people say "you're not working class anymore", what they mean is that working class people can't be smart: Dee O'Neill on working class academics

What do we mean when we refer to someone as a working class academic?  Why it is necessary to point out that I am a working class academic and not just an academic. Is it because in many ways it appears to be a contradictory concept – because there’s a fundamental disjuncture between the two terms, a lack of fit because the world of academia is an upper middle class one?

Encapsulated within the phrase working class academic is a history of struggle, a litany of what Sennett and Cobb called the ‘hidden injuries of class,’ a narrative of displacement not shared or understood by academics from privileged backgrounds. No one feels the need to point out that academics are middle class. It’s not usual to add that description when talking about academics in general. That's because it’s unnecessary, because it’s not unusual – it’s the norm, it’s what expected – but by virtue of being working class you are not the norm in academia  – you are the unexpected – the ‘other’ in a elitist, rarified world where people like you are few and far between.

One of the paradoxes of being a working class academic is how keen people are to insist you’re not working class anymore. Becoming an academic means you can deny your socialization, your history and your experiences. In their view all of this can simply be annihilated, as if becoming an academic sets the clock back to year zero. Universities exist to reinforce class privilege – to embed the hierarchal distinction between manual and intellectual labour, the distinction between the working class and the middle classes. When people accuse you of ‘not being working class anymore’ what they are really saying is there’s no place in the university for working class people.

Entering a middle class environment produced for me an increased awareness of how difficult life is for working class people, something I was always aware of – how could I not be – but now there was something to compare it with. I have listened in disbelief to people who complain about exhaustion because they have to do two lectures in one day or have ‘back to back meetings’. I compare them to my dad who worked as a labourer on building sites during the day and then worked in the banana factory on the night shift – the factory was just up the road, and is now a block of luxury flats. The factory was a testament to my dad’s hard work and employed local people, and has been colonized by ruthless developers and who have swamped south London looking for cheap neighbourhoods to gentrify. In the process they have pushed the prices up so much it’s impossible for working class people that have been there for generations, people like my mum – and her mum, and her mum’s mum – to stay.

There is a need to develop a working class narrative, one that acknowledges the lack of fit between the two spheres. Working class academics straddle the bourgeois sphere of academia – a space where (in theory) intellectual discussion takes place amongst equals. A space of well-paid jobs, populated by people from privileged backgrounds who grew up in big houses, who had a bedroom of their own when they were children, somewhere to do there homework –who went to restaurants and on holidays abroad – a sphere which is predicated on and defined by the exclusion of working class people.

And the other sphere of bad housing; of overcrowded living spaces; of poorly paid work; of never quite having enough of anything; of wonderful loving parents made dysfunctional by hard work and disaffection; of socially acceptable coping mechanisms such as drinking, which when taken too far become socially unacceptable and destructive; of dying young because you’re working class; of wanting to escape the world of shit jobs and low pay but at the same time stay in it because its where you belong; of rejecting the values and attitudes of the middle class – who don't particularly like you anyway because your working classness makes them feel uncomfortable and they don't want to reminded of how easy it was for them.

My dad was an Irish immigrant who came to England at sixteen unable to read or write, my mum was from Peckham and left school at fourteen to start work in a local factory – neither of my parents had any kind of formal further education. My dad taught himself to read and write by studying Marx, Engels, Connolly and Shaw – a radical autodidact who constantly told me ‘educate that you may be free ‘.

But what is the cost of that freedom? What do working class people lose when they leave their own sphere of knowledge and belonging to make their way in a sphere from which they feel alienated and where the knowledge they encounter often runs parallel to their own – what does it mean to live with this dissonance, this state of inbetweenness? How does that translate into freedom?

I was taught by teachers who despised us because we were working class children of Irish immigrants. They told us to keep our hair short so we did not get fleas, they told us to make sure we had two pairs of shoe so that we could change them and our feet would not smell. The head mistress caned us for having opinions. When the careers officer came she suggested two options – hairdressing and back clerk. No one ever said “you’re bright, go to university”.

I played truant for my final year and left as soon as I could. I did four ‘O’ levels at the local further education college and then went to work full time as a library assistant in the local library (long since closed down). It was boring, repetitive work. I hated it.

I left very quickly, and then came a series of dead end jobs, and by the time I was 23 I was a single parent living on a council estate and benefits.

I wanted to have a decent job and decent income but it was difficult. I did bar work in pubs and nightclubs, my parents coming to my flat to look after my daughter. I delivered leaflets an even did a day at the butchers stall down the market – I didn’t last any longer because I was a vegetarian and it was like something out of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. When my daughter started school I began cleaning the houses of the middle classes. All these jobs were cash in hand, so alongside the stresses of being poor was the added worrying that someone would grass me up and the ‘suss’ would find out I was working and claiming at the same time.

As my daughter got older and we got poorer I got tired of the shit jobs – it’s no fun cleaning for the middle classes and there’s no future in it. I wanted my daughter to think education was important.  I did not want her to end up like me – broke, cleaning, living in a shit flat on an increasingly shit council estate.

When she was seven I started A level evening classes, when she was ten I went to work part-time as a Welfare Rights Officer in the local hospital. I juggled study, being a single parent and working, keeping the cleaning jobs on too. When I was thirty-five I went to university, an old poly. It was difficult.  I was cleaning and studying, my dad was really ill, my daughter was struggling at secondary school.

I was amazed at how middle class the other students were. Because it was an old poly I had expected them to be less so, but there were men in their 30s whose parents were paying their rent, or who were living in flats owned by their parents. People who went abroad for the whole of the summer, and people whose fathers owned factories in other countries. People who did not have to work and study – it was a very different world to the one I inhabited.

This personal biography is relevant because it makes a mockery of the idea I am no longer working class. It points to how different my background and my trajectory is to most of the people I have met in academia. It points to the difference between being an academic and being a working class academic. The hegemonic conformist values of the middle class academic are alien to me – I don't want to compete with other people, I don't want to change cities so that I can get a job, or kiss arse to ‘get on’.  I want the beliefs and values that have always defined me to continue to define me. I don't want to publish obsessively, to fly from one conference to another, to spend my time frantically networking.

I don't think it was until I entered academia that I realized how working class I am, how much my values differ from many of the people I have met here. I have listened in horror as sessional lecturer and PhD student told me her 12-year-old child knew not to bother her when she was working because he knew her work came first. I have listened with fasciation when I told someone how supportive a fellow part-timer had been and she repaid ‘watch your back’ as though I posed some threat to this person, just because we worked in the same precarious position as part time ‘visiting ‘ lecturers.

The cultural and educational map of working class academics is not straightforward. It full of detours and dead ends. It leads us into unknown space, mediated by a socio and economic inequality. It creates anger and frustration, and any success we achieve is complicated by our relationship to the academy that we have worked to join but where we can never truly be a member.

 

Dee O'Neill is a working class filmmaker and educator. Find her at insidefilm.org and @deeinsidefilm or check out her new documentary on working class actors at http://theactingclass.info

Academia Needs Working Class Kids: Calum Carson, Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change

When I was growing up, the thought of going to University never really occurred to me. Not in a despairing, dramatic fashion because of an overwhelming ambition to enrol in higher education being hindered by my circumstances: it was just not something that myself or those around me ever really talked about.

My greatest ambition in my teenage years was to become a professional skateboarder, and I thought of little else. I attended a secondary school with a seemingly endless number of supply teachers and experienced my fair share of bullying, and found my own respite from this world of education through skateboarding in the evenings, weekends, and even early mornings. There was something about the sport that gave me focus, confidence, and the drive to push myself further: everything that I wasn’t receiving at school, which I became increasingly disenchanted with. Still, I managed to scrape into Sixth Form with nothing above a C grade at GCSE, and enrolled out of a desire to keep my Mum happy more than anything else. I drifted aimlessly through my first year at Sixth Form, doing poorly in my end of year exams.

During the summer holidays, however, I suffered a severe injury while attempting a trick down a rather ambitious set of stairs, and had no choice but to give up skateboarding for the foreseeable future. This loss of the central focus of my life coincided with returning to Sixth Form for my second year of studies as (after a series of other students dropping out) the lone person in my A Level Politics course, which thanks to the unexpected individual tuition of a wonderful teacher transferred my drive from skateboarding into education, and a sudden ambition to pursue my studies further at university, including the retaking all of my first year exams to help make this a reality: a rather strange story, perhaps, but one that I have a suspicion has echoes in the journeys that many working class children have taken on their own roads to university.

Once I had arrived at university in September 2005, studying Politics at the University of Leeds, I began to be aware of the differences in the backgrounds between myself and the vast majority of those around me. Growing up I had never really been in contact with anybody from a private school, not in a unequal-divide-sort-of-way so much as everyone around me was simply from similar circumstances to my own: here, however, the divides we still see in British society were very clear to see. I found it most confusing, and very interesting from a psychological point of view, to understand why many (not all!) of those I met with a private school education thought themselves somehow above the rest of us, when it was not their own talent that had secured their educations for them so much as it was their parents’ own circumstances: it was my first real experience of what is commonly referred to as “entitlement”, of which we still see so much in today’s political and economic climate.

However, I also noticed that those students with such conceits did not necessarily perform to any higher standard than the rest of us in seminars and exams, and thus while I felt like a “fish out of water” among them, I never felt “beneath” them, so much as I remained baffled by their air of superiority. These experiences did, however, provide me with two important insights: an awareness that after unexpectedly “making it” to higher education despite lacking these advantages I should take it seriously and work hard to make a success of it; and a new ambition to help other students from working class backgrounds break through and into the world of higher education, as I had.

In order to help pursue this ambition, myself and a number of other undergraduate students began a “Student Ambassador” team, the aim of which was to visit underprivileged schools in the local area and get their students talking about higher education: and, most importantly, showing them that they too had a place at higher education institutions around the country. In a piece I wrote at the time (which can still be seen here) I emphasised that the political arena needed more working class representation, along with universities in Britain as a whole. These efforts coincided with a national emphasis on advancing social mobility and increasing working class representation at universities which is not promoted as widely today, but which with the ever-larger rises of tuition fees is more important than ever. 

Having now studied for a Masters in Social Research and a PhD, along with working within a university in an administrative position for several years, all my ongoing experiences have taught me that higher education can only gain from a greater number of individuals from working class backgrounds joining the academy. Not only is there a social justice argument to this ambition, but there is an academic one too: that there is intellectual value in diffusing access to universities among those from different backgrounds who may be able to pursue different areas of research, borne from their own experiences and interests. For example, my own PhD focuses on exploring the incredible success that the Living Wage has had on both the lives of workers, and the success of the employers that they work for: an interest borne from my own personal experiences of the struggles of low-paid workers and their daily struggles, and the importance of higher wages in combating growing rates of in-work poverty in Britain today.

There are a thousand other examples within academia of such research, many of which you can see through the individuals involved within this new movement. I am proud to support this campaign, which will help make the ambition of higher education for everyone who wishes to pursue it, regardless of background, just a little bit more of a reality.

 

Calum Carson is a doctoral researcher at Leeds University Business School, exploring the impact of the Living Wage and the growth of precarious employment.

"You Close Off a Part of Yourself": Anonymous Account of a Working Class Academic

I don’t know where to begin to write about my experience of being working class in an academic context. It’s difficult. When you talk about class to colleagues, so often you feel like you are making a point which makes them uncomfortable (maybe something loosely analogous to talking to middle class white people about racism), or you feel that you are being a bit like the Monty Python character who was so poor he lived in a box on the motorway - that your experience is hyperbolic.

It is difficult to write about the experience of being working class without some kind of baggage, in a way which normalises it. So, you don’t talk about it. You close it off. You close off that part of yourself. I think that being a working class academic is a kind of de-racination. I haven’t experienced any explicit discrimination. Rather what happened to me was a slow and insidious process in which I was subtly pressured by the environment to change my accent and all of my preferences - a process which I was fully complicit in.

I loved going to university, which is why I wanted to stay there. I loved the peacefulness and niceness of the environment (still do) and the fact that it was OK to be academic. It fits with that part of my personality.

But the other bit (the working class bit) is still in there, and sometimes it gets annoyed that it isn’t allowed. It is probably worth saying that I didn’t know that I was working class until I went to university. I grew up in London in a multi-ethnic working class neighbourhood where we had no sense of Englishness because everyone’s parents were from somewhere else - mainly Ireland, Jamaica or South Asia. When you were fourteen you got a part-time job and were allowed to smoke because you were earning your own money. You staggered on with school until they let you leave. Then, if you were a girl you worked in a shop and if you were a boy you worked at your dad’s building/road job or you loaded things in a van. From the ages of fifteen to eighteen a typical Friday and Saturday night for me would be going to the pub, then onto a club or a party - and by the end of the night someone might be arrested. At home you ate stew and potatoes or goat curry and plantain. Your mum was religious. There were two families in every house. We didn’t have bathrooms until the mid-eighties. Everyone’s house was rented, if you were lucky from the local housing authority. Lots of girls had babies in their late teens. Some of the boys went to prison. This was normal, and these are the facts. Sometimes my mum would have to wait to cook tea on a Friday until my dad got home with some money for the gas meter. We weren’t poor - there was no sense of deprivation. This was normal.

If I tell my academic colleagues about this it sounds poor, it sounds different. It wasn’t. I read Zadie Smith’s book NW and it had a massive emotional impact on me because it articulated my experience perfectly. When her character Keisha gets angry I could feel it. Nowadays I am living a life a million miles away from that, in a middle class area, working at a well known university with a white, middle-class/upper middle-class demographic. When colleagues talk about Sun readers it makes me rage. Working class people (like my mum and dad) don’t read tabloids because they are bigots. What the fuck is builders’ tea? These small ‘tells’ are how I experience the sense of being displaced in academia. Sometimes at work I listen to Grime on headphones before meetings - which is kind of ridiculous for a fifty year old academic woman - and I do it because I can hear my own accent for a change and there is something kind of comforting about that.
 

On Pretending

Given that our campaign started out with a push for a Class Officer at LSE, I thought it'd be fitting to start off our experience blog with one about accents that I wrote during the campaign. A short expression of what it's like to live with a working class accent in a Received Pronunciation world, please enjoy the following article written with all the angst and emotions of someone running a referendum campaign on bad coffee and four hours' sleep - Chris

I speak with a Lutonian accent. It sounds a lot like a South London one, but slightly worse and not as fast. I’m still learning to like the way I talk, and I’m getting there, but it’s a long process. I still catch myself putting on a home-counties voice when I’m on campus. I still assume that I won’t be taken seriously if I speak to people in the accent I grew up with. I still have to remind myself every day that my voice is not a source of shame or sign of stupidity, because I’ve spent the last two and a half years (or the past twenty if you want to get all sociological about it) being taught in near-explicit terms that it is.

I went through most of my first year absolutely hating the way I spoke. I’d sit in classes or in pubs with people from all over the world and listen to their voices rumble and crackle with culture. They’d dance with their words without knowing it, moving their mouths and twisting their voices in ways that I couldn’t even attempt. In stark contrast to the flowing and lyrical conversation around me I would stumble over my consonants and drag through my vowels, and could almost feel my hometown arching my back and slacking my jaw with every word. Sitting in a group of middle class students, as well-meaning as many of them were, felt like I was watching people ballroom dance through the windows of a manor I’d never be welcome in, while I was stood in a bog and trying to stop my wellies from coming off in the mud.  

My second year started off easier. Submerging myself in the culture at LSE had given me hints of RP by osmosis and I’d managed to hold onto the sharper edges of this new accent over a summer working at home. When I’d talk I’d hear an intelligence in my voice I didn’t know was there before, and I was speaking with a confidence that I hadn’t had since I arrived in London. It was quite nice for a while, actually, and I settled into a good flow for a solid part of the year. Then I watched a video of myself that was recorded in sixth form, and saw a chasm between the voice of a kid proud of his class and his home and the clumsy attempt at Received Pronunciation I’d cloaked myself in. My accent was still not an Etonian one, but had lost the warmth I’d associated with the accent I’d first brought to LSE. I felt alien when I spoke, a pretender when I was in London and a stranger when I was at home. 

I think my relationship with my voice says a lot about my experience of class at LSE. I’m growing proud in it now. Rather than forcing myself into a shape that blends in with everyone else in a seminar or meeting I’m becoming comfortable and confident in my difference, as I hope all working class students are. It’s hard to feel at home when your accent has stood for ignorance, bigotry and violence in the eyes (or ears) of many of the people around you, but I’m managing. You could draw wider conclusions here about the importance of representation and the cultural inequality between classes that is often overlooked. But, for now at least, I’d just like to leave you with a heartfelt plea to be proud of your voice. It is one of the purest forms of expression we have, it is you, and it is beautiful.

And if you can’t love your voice for its own sake, do it for the sake of the immense effort it took me to write that hyper-cheesy closing line.