This was originally published at Class Action in September 2012.
Classism in Academia
A little over two years ago, a student called me a ‘cunt’ in front of 38 other students. My academic employer did little to protect me and allowed a local, “progressive” paper to attack me in a newspaper/Internet article. I believe this had everything to do with my being a popular but adjunct, community college teacher (earning about $18,000 per year). I didn’t know it at the time, but the clock was ticking on my professional career.
The article from the newspaper has haunted my professional life. Last year, a potential client backed out of hiring me for a professional development training, citing a comment at the end of the article that he’d read after Googling me, a threatening comment (written by a tenured colleague) about my credibility as a professional. He said he could not take the risk with me. And, because of how academia works, with its rigid hierarchies and polite wars, I quit after six years and am likely not to teach again. In academia, classism works like this–once tainted, always fouled.
I made a choice; I quit adjuncting because I was experiencing class-based bullying in addition to heaps of sexism. My life on campus post-newspaper article was awful, every semester a copy of the article found its way to the desk of my shared office and on two occasions, my campus mailbox, and once last spring, placed under the windshield wiper of my Subaru. Every semester after, students wondered why in the hell I hadn’t responded and told “my side of the story,” not understanding the gag the college put over my mouth. I also couldn’t get outside work anymore, which was how I paid for the extra costs of teaching and advising a student club. The comments in the article made me look “unprofessional,” which is a middle class euphemism for “you have no class.” A whopping dose of personal trauma enabled me to see academia for what it is–a bad fit for a working class woman like me.
I need to be honest though, I miss teaching. That’s the complication working class people like me often face, “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” The semester started up again August 20and I fell into two weeks of deep depression that I’m barely recovered from, except to say that thinking my life is over professionally has waned into an understanding of the pain. The pain I went through in academia, (first as a working class student and later, adjunct working class faculty) and the pain I denied to myself to the point of exhaustion. This summer was a reprieve but school starting took me all the way back to the beginning six years before I started teaching, when I was a 33 year old college junior, first-generation failures lined up like notches on a belt but earnest as fuck and ready to prove myself.
The blows came early in my student career, a feminist, working class prof praising me for returning to school because it was a good place for working class women escaping an abusive marriage. Of course, I fit her class stereotype, a fat re-entry student, a grown woman afflicted with the use of slang and cuss words, and so wanting to please and be respectful, using “Dr.” even when they said to call them by their first names. Later, my MA thesis chair would fill me in on how my marriage was doomed to fail with each passing year of educational attainment because working class men like my husband, “can’t handle it when their wives get an education.” It happened to her.
After I got the job, I got shit from men teachers too, but it was shit that was familiar, me being a working class woman. It was also less indirect shit, more outright challenges to my knowledge (to the fellas I was “opinionated”) and in regards to my teaching, (I was “easy” because students liked me, I was trying to be their “friend”). In professional settings however, sexism and classism often become intertwined and I became a target for a tenured, male teacher in my area, once popular but now in competition with me a woman, and adjunct faculty. My work life became a special kind of hell when he became my department chair in 2010. To my misfortune, he met with the student who called me a “cunt,” revealing to me in a campus email the next day that the student “seemed reasonable to him,” case closed. It was humiliating.
A year ago, I thought that I had proof of the bullying at last; a friend alerted me that there was a new and threatening personal comment following the newspaper article on the Internet. I was thinking of quitting at that time but worried about my future in academia (and future employment) and brought the comment to the attention of human resources (H.R.). Yes, H.R. said, it was definitely written by a colleague “from within” (validation at last!); but no, there isn’t anything we can do about it and that I “shouldn’t take it personally.” If you are working class, you might understand the deep sense of betrayal I felt, work is never just a job to me, and it is personal.
Teaching was good for a long time and I was a good teacher, I had the stuff and got recognition for it. Nonetheless, power is central in academic culture, and in a community college where the stakes are small, power is the result of position and status with others, especially amongst faculty. I became a target for being outspoken about social inequality but mostly because I was an adjunct faculty who didn’t know her place and had the gall to allow students to call her “professor.” In spite of doing my best to make a good case with H.R., class-based discrimination isn’t recognized and in my situation, questioned and then demonized; I was sensitive and paranoid, not bullied.
The upside is the lessons I learned and that I’m feeling better with time and perspective. I believed academia to be a little too perfect; an intellectual utopia of egalitarianism and that was my bad. Academia with its hierarchies and rampant personality politics are a bizarro, grown-up version of high school where all the smart, wealthy kids are in charge. I loved teaching, but I’d been bullied and wrung out like a dirty wash cloth; call me chickenshit ‘cause I’ll tell you, the job nearly killed me and quitting was tough but it saved my life.