By Guest Writer: N. Jeanne Burns
A friend said recently that one definitive marker of social class is whether you know how to eat an artichoke. This probably isn’t true for migrant farmworkers who toil in or around Castroville, California, the self-proclaimed “Artichoke Capital of the World.” Or even for people who grew up on the Mediterranean, where the plant is native. But M.F.K. Fisher, who herself grew up surrounded by fields of artichokes, recognized the class-climbing rank of the thistle in her essay “The Social Status of the Vegetable.” And the distinction feels right to me, even seventy years later, despite other, more elite foods like pâtédefoisgras making a clear status statement. Maybe it’s because you can get artichoke hearts on home-delivered pizza or in jars at even some of the smallest grocery stores. But the flower itself is hard to find and looks threatening when you spy it on your produce shelves.I don’t recall the first time I tasted an artichoke, sometime in my twenties. It was probably in a dip, the vegetable’s real flavor and texture drowned out by mayonnaise, cheese, and canned artichoke brine. However, I remember the first time I saw an artichoke in the grocery store, looking more like a wall of soldiers guarding the asparagus than the tender, delicious vegetable I would come to love. I pretended to examine grapefruit while I watched several people pick through the bin and place two or four blooms in their carts. Iwas embarrassed because people around me seemed to know something I didn’t: how to turn that oversized greenpinecone into a meal.I couldn’t ask my mother, because she wouldn’t know. She’d grown up in Appalachian rural poverty and ate only what her family could grow. Artichokes didn’t appear on their table.Knowing scarcity herself, she made sure our working-class family always had sustenance, but never cooked more than we could eat at one sitting. The food stayed within the boundaries of her experience. Fried chicken. Canned green beans and raw bacon boiled together for half an hour. Fried pork chops. Collards and bacon fat, cooked until the greens were wilted, dark and shiny with grease. Fried salmon cakes made with fish from a tin. Canned peas boiled to mush. Mom kept a large tin of bacon grease by the stove to fry eggs, make gravy, and glaze biscuits. Her spice cabinet held only salt, pepper, and cream of tartar. She hated garlic.I’ve come to love more subtle tastes and textures than my mother taught me to appreciate.In my early thirties, I went with friends to a restaurant I’d heard was very good. The waiter brought tiny plates to our celebratory table. On each, a minute crouton cradling a smear of fresh mozzarella was covered with a fresh basil leaf and drizzled with a sweet brown liquid.”An amuse-bouche from the chef,” he said, “topped with balsamic vinegar.”We’d been waiting over an hour for the last of the party to arrive and were very hungry. By the time my friends and I downed the diminutive appetizers, wiped our mouths and returned the napkins to our respective laps, we wanted more and let the waiter know.

He laughed. “That was one-hundred-year-old balsamic–$250 per ounce.”

Its velvety sweet flavor hinted at a heavy red wine, but with a subtly sharp vinegar taste in the background. I’d never tasted something so good or so expensive. I wanted more.

After that dinner, for very special times my partner Liz and I wanted to mark, we splurged at restaurants where haricots verts are slender green beans, charcuterie is a selection of shaved deli meats, coulis is a thin sauce. I never liked steak until I felt my first bite of filet mignon melting on my tongue. And you would never have seen me eat a parsnip until I had tasted pureed root vegetables at a local French restaurant.

I don’t tell mom about my food escapades because I’m certain she’d be offended at the amount of money we spend on a dinner for two and be worried about how I dressed. “You wore hose and a slip, I hope,” she’d say, the o in hope drawn out as if there were a u after it. She never wanted her social class to show and taught me to mimic people I judged to be a higher class than I, as she had.

When my mother told me she first used a napkin when she was fifteen, in 1960, I had a lot of questions. What did she use to wipe her mouth before 1960? (An arm or sleeve.) Did all her friends and school mates wipe their mouths with their sleeves? (Yes.) And, finally, how did she learn to use a napkin?

An upper-middle-class family had come into the hills seeking a live-in babysitter and found my mother. She moved away from her family for the first time to take this summer job. When mom was asked to set the table, she was told to set out napkins (she doesn’t remember whether they were cloth or paper). She watched the family members wipe their mouths. She mimicked their actions, inferring correctly that people in a class above hers use napkins.

My neighborhood housed firefighters, truck drivers, and janitors so I first encountered middle class people in college. Since then, I’ve observed and mimicked cultural mores many times. I have failed at the part of inference sometimes.

My first time in college, I saw lots of well-dressed pretty women wearing safety pins that had been decorated with variously colored short ribbons that seemed to match their clothes. I made a color-coordinated pin for each of my outfits and wore them until a woman who was offended that I would steal her sorority’s colors dressed me down. I never again trusted what I saw to be appropriate.

Still, I watched and learned.

I grew up with paper napkins. We kept them by our plates and picked them up to wipe our mouths. If we were eating something particularly messy, I would spread out the paper and tuck the tip into my shirt. The restaurants we went to growing up all provided paper napkins. Sometimes they gave us rectangular and thicker napkins than the Viva brand we used at home, but they were always paper.

The first time I used a cloth napkin was at prom, which was held at the Hotel duPont, the nicest hotel in town. But I kept it on the table.

I was in my late twenties before I noticed people around me putting their napkins on their laps. This didn’t make sense to me. The mess I make when I eat is on my face or on my shirt. I never get stains on my pants because the drips drop at the shelf on my chest. Why wouldn’t I want the napkin closer?

I asked a friend when I first noticed the napkin in the lap, and she laughed at me, saying only white trash tuck their napkins in their shirts. A napkin on my lap still doesn’t make sense to me, because after my friend laughed at me, I became afraid of asking about social class conventions.

Finally, at twenty-nine, I had my chance. My friend Nils presented artichokes to go with the baked chicken he’d just taken out of the oven.

“How about artichokes for our vegetable? Fresh from my garden.”

I nodded and smiled, hoping to see artichoke prep firsthand, but knowing I would have to pretend that I already knew how to cook and eat it.

“You start the chokes while I get the chicken out of the oven?”

“No, I’ll take the bird out. It’ll only be a minute.” I didn’t even want to touch the artichokes because they looked painful to handle.

He palmed the blooms and told me a story about getting kicked out of the kitchen of his Navy battleship because the cook thought he got in the way.

So the leaves don’t hurt, I thought.

“He also didn’t want me to get my officer’s uniform dirty.”

“I don’t want you to stain your clothes either. That’s why I’m dealing with the dirty bird!”

As I tented the chicken with foil, I watched him cut off most of the stem and place the thistles into a steamer. The pot’s top teetered on the tallest one, so he balanced it on one edge.

“Have you ever had artichokes cooked any other way?” I asked.

“Hearts in brine, but those are steamed too. Have you?”

“Oh, I thought since you’d traveled the world in the Navy, you’d have seen some unusual things.” I moved to the kitchen table and started folding napkins that he’d taken out of the dryer a few minutes before into rectangles, wanting to keep myself occupied so he wouldn’t ask me to check on the vegetable. Or ask me to turn the fabric squares into a bird.

“I’ve seen lots of strange things. Nothing with an artichoke. I think there’s only one way to cook and eat an artichoke. To eat any thistle.”

After carving the chicken he placed one bloom on each of our plates, and a bowl of what looked like mayonnaise between us. The green globe smelled most like steamed spinach. He ate his chicken before picking at his vegetable.

Then he plucked off each leaf, one by one, dipped it into the sauce he called “broccolati,” which I now know to be aioli–mayo with lemon and garlic–and scraped the tender flesh off each leaf with his teeth.

I followed his lead until I got to a hairy blob. I didn’t know what to do, so I took my napkin off my lap and placed it onto the table, which I’d learned the year before, was the signal that you are done with your meal.

“You’re not going to eat the heart? That’s the best part!”

I wanted to eat the heart, but I didn’t want to embarrass myself by not knowing what to do with the hairs.

“No, I’m full. You go ahead if you want.”

Nils scraped the hairy ball out of his artichoke heart with a spoon, being careful to get every fiber but none of the vegetable’s center, cut the heart in four, and ate them without any aioli. While he scraped at mine I asked him how he learned to eat an artichoke.

“I don’t remember. My mother cooked them for us, and I suppose I learned from her.”

These days the Internet and YouTube how-to videos can teach me just about anything. I can, for instance, mimic my partner’s very privileged family when we go to very fine restaurants to celebrate a birthday or anniversary without worrying that I’ll be judged as white trash. I’ll use the tiny spoon to sprinkle salt on my dinner like everyone else at the table, and will learn later about why petite bowls and spoons are better than a salt shaker, with the poet Pablo Neruda’s tenderhearted warrior always on my mind.

I’ve used online video searches to learn how to make a lamb balsamic reduction, how to sprinkle fleur de sel as a finishing salt on a delicate endive salad, and how to slice open a mango, all things my mother would find too strange for her liking.

Though I’m sure she’ll like that I now keep a small jar of bacon fat in my freezer, because in the twenty-some years I’ve been out of her house, I’ve not found a better fat in which to fry an egg. The next time I see her, I’ll make a dip with mayonnaise, crème fraîche (telling her it is sour cream), and white truffle oil (telling her it is made from mushrooms), and I’ll teach mom how to eat an artichoke.

Class Lives

Published in Class Lives: Stories from Across our Economic Divide, 2014, Cornell University Press


The Three Gifts of Tenure

Scarlet Letter

I will say it up front. Tenure is cool, and the opposite, “contingent” employment, really sucks. I was an adjunct for about two years in the 1990s, and I know from first hand experience that it sucked. Why?

Well there were a couple of reasons. First, was that I was constantly on the job market, since I did not know where my income was coming from the following semester. This is a condition that college teachers share with many workers in the modern economy, on the funny assumption that the more scared you are of catastrophe, the harder you will work.

But scared teachers do not develop their repertoire, either in teaching or research. Delivering a 15 week class takes 3-4 semesters to “get right,” meaning to get the rhythm of what you need to say, how it fits together, what assignments fit in best. And of course the jokes need to be right—and that takes practice, too. Three to four times, and it starts becoming easy—and 10-12 times it becomes boring, as your “lecture” notes yellow and turn stale.

A second gift of tenure is the capacity to develop a research program—you can only do this if you have a reasonable confidence of continued income. Research programs, whether they are your own, or your graduate students, take several years to manage and develop. Books? About five years. Articles, a little less.  Such projects do not fit in well to semester-to-semester contracts.

And the third gift of tenure is that it puts you on an equal footing with your “boss.” This is important because, well, not all bosses, are that great at supervising teachers, whether they are tenured or not—just ask the adjuncts who are indeed supervised by Department Chairs elected by the tenured faculty.

This part of the gift of tenure has two different causes. First is the fact that teaching is inherently difficult to supervise—a supervisor cannot really “supervise” more than a fraction of their work, nor can they use a clock, or other mechanism to monitor anything of significance in the classroom. This is something that those who supervise teaching should know, but often do not acknowledge.  Or rather they invent proxies like “Student Evaluation of Teaching,” which ask students about their experience, or ask you what you have printed on your syllabus, as if that is really what happens in class.

The second part of the “chair” problem is that the chairs and deans who hire adjunct faculty are not necessarily very good managers of adjuncts—they are hired by tenured faculty to serve (not manage) tenured faculty. Supervising adjuncts is for them just a side gig—the real action is with those who elected them, i.e. the tenure track faculty. As a result many are not necessarily very good at managing “contingent employees.” What does it mean to be lousy at supervising adjuncts?

–Not let the adjunct know what they will be teaching or take away an assigned class and give it to a tenured person at last minute

–Say or do anything which lets contingent employees believe that they might not have a job next semester/year.

–Change up preps unexpectedly–or change class sizes erratically

–Use anecdotal student gossip to write reviews, whether it comes in hushed tones in the office, through written reviews, informal discussion with tenured faculty, or

–Publish a job ad with the classes taught by contingent employees in them.

–Otherwise keep the adjunct off-balance regarding their professional status.

And then of course there is the problem of pay, which like it or not is central what we do. The stories of adjuncts on welfare are of course legion. Not every campus does it, but paying $2,000-$3000 per class for a full-time adjunct (with ten courses being a full-load) is a recipe for penury, short-term employment, and high employee turnover. And what can I say? Quick turnover of teachers is harmful to teaching quality—and in the university world, “quick” means every 5-6 years. After all, how can you prepare a “full quiver” of classes in a shorter time? Student success suffers from teachers who are not treated as highly skilled professionals, and have a tougher time developing as a professional as a result.

And this says nothing of a research program which oddly enough, some adjuncts still put together on the side.

My Appreciation for Tenure

I’ve been on tenure track since 1998, and had tenure since 2003.  This has indeed been a blessing, particularly when I compare my working conditions to my adjunct colleagues who are under constant threat of lay-off. What has it permitted me to do?

Accept new course preps, and explore new fields without fear of short-term failure, which in the adjunct world means a few students complaining to a dean or chair about you. Sometimes this happened, mostly it didn’t—but even when it does, I can be confident that the comments will not be taken out of context.

Re-establish the Asian Studies major, for which I was a “voluntary advisor” for three years. This is something I am enormously proud of—and would not have done without the freedom of tenure protections.  I was also able to participate in “General Education Reform” in a fashion which I hoped reflected abstract academic goals for student achievement, rather than the narrow “butts in seats” metrics of standard university administration by “full-time equivalent students (FTES).”

Publish six books, an write a number of articles, one of which received a comeuppance letter from the politically connected United States Ambassador to Tanzania. Because I was tenure track, I got an “attaboy” from my Chair at the time. Imagine if I had been contingent—I would have been afraid that such a high government official could get me fired, or at least put in the pathway of “I’m sorry it looks like there are no classes for you next semester.”

In short, my employment guarantee gives me the freedom to experiment without fear to my livelihood. Do some of my colleagues take advantage of this? Probably—but the fact of the matter is that the freedom my tenure gives me exists only in such a context. If I didn’t have an employment guarantee I would be back to sending out my c.v. every semester and keeping my head low in hopes that I could put together a living, rather than developing a scholarly career.

I’m Sorry, Next Semester We Do Not Have Any Classes For You!

The opposite of tenure, lack of employment security, though actually drags the institution of higher education down further. To understand this, I need only listen to the whispered fears of my adjunct colleagues. They fear trying new things, requesting professional courtesies I take for granted, requesting justified raises, attending conferences, taking on new preps, or pushing back when more students are pushed at them.  Indeed the ability of administrators to push more students at the adjuncts is why they typically teach teach larger sections than their tenured colleagues. Adjuncts are also hesitant about expressing themselves frankly in meetings. Many fear becoming involved in the union not because of what the union does, but because they fear administrators will deliver the dreaded and vague message, “next semester we do not have any classes for you.”

This post is an adaptation of “I’m Sorry, Next Semester We Do Not Have Any Classes for You!” which was posted in January 2015 here at

Social Class and Food from Around the Web

I grew up eating what the educated like to call “junk” food and “trash” food, mostly it was “poor food,” that came from boxes and cans. It wasn’t always like this in my family, we had short periods of feast and long periods of famine, and when times were good (my mom “marrying up’) we ate fresh, home cooked food. When times were bad however (going broke after losing the family business), it was hamburger in a five-pound tube and no label, mac and cheese in a box.

There’s much debate about poverty and food, mostly around how welfare recipients do or don’t spend their money on food. At the same time, when the debate about health/nutrition and poverty comes up, the poor and working class are the subject of scorn and critique for their food choices and “the growing obesity problem.” It’s a no-win situation.

Easy CheeseToday, we offer you some selections from around the web about social class and food:

  1. Read the excellent “Trash Food” by Chris Offutt by clicking here.
  2. Look at a playful Instagramer’s take on class and food plating by clicking this link to Twisted Swifter (a favorite website). If you don’t know what “food plating” is (bless you, I didn’t either), click this link to learn the “Basics of food plating.”
  3. Those with an anthropological bent, can read Robin Fox’s take on class, food, and table manners when you click here.

Monetizing Mindfulness

Maybe the word “mindfulness” is like the Prius emblem, a badge of enlightened and self-satisfied consumerism, and of success and achievement. If so, not deploying mindfulness — taking pills or naps for anxiety, say, or going out to church or cocktails — makes you look sort of backward or classless. Like driving a Hummer.

I came across a good critique of how the Buddhist concept of mindfulness has been co-opted by the PMC (professional middle class) and other groovy types looking to sell stuff to the MBA’s. My critique of the article is that the concept was co-opted by the kind of people who read The New York Times, and it’s unlikely they have the reflective skills to realize that this article is about them!

Click the link here, and give Virginia Heffernan’s article a read yourself and let us know what you think. Has the meaning of mindfulness been muddied? Is it less a spiritual practice and more a class marker?

Allegations of Racial Discrimination at a Rural Sheriff’s Department


Something worth sharing has cropped up in our neck of the woods, which is in a rural county in northern California. A deputy for the Butte County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO) sued his employer citing “racial harassment, discrimination and retaliation when he reported the incidents.” The local paper reported that Michael Sears is a deputy sheriff who has one Black parent and one white parent, or in other words, is “mixed race.” It seems he experienced a series of racially-focused incidents and actions by his co-workers and bosses that sounds a whole lot like what is called in American Labor Law, a “hostile work environment” and “workplace bullying.” The local Chico Enterprise-Record reported the details of Mr. Sears allegations. My sense of it is that after eight years with the BCSO, he couldn’t stay silent about his experiences. Usually a complaint only gets this far when there is clear, undeniable evidence. But as my journalist friends might remind me, these are only allegations. Right? Right.

The reason it interests me is because this is the same sheriff’s department that since September has been investigating the murder of my friend Marc Thompson who was African American. I’ve written about Marc on this blog and at the Synthesis, a local newspaper here in Butte County, which you can read about by clicking this link and this link. It’s concerning because the BCSO is a rural department and if you’re someone like me, you worry about racism among the ranks; it is what it is. There are many questions around the investigation into Marc’s murder by the BCSO—no arrests even after seven months. Some of us assume institutional racism and bias in how the investigation into Marc’s murder was and continues to be conducted. For instance, the county has yet to release an official cause of death and I still don’t know the how and the why behind some bullets that were sent to the Department of Justice labs in the state capital in Sacramento, California.

So, I also wonder about the investigative interest among members of a sheriff’s department in the case of deputy Sears. Who would use the “N-Word” in the presence of their African-American mixed race co-worker (and expect him to keep quiet about it)? I wonder about his superiors and their alleged retaliation, and how in rural places like Butte County, this kind of racism is accepted and as the article indicates, laughed off, from the bottom of the sheriff’s office hierarchy to the top of it.

Going  by the comments on social media, it seems like Mr. Sears is a well-respected officer and several community members commented on various sources that they are “rooting for him.” I’m rooting for him too. In one comment on a local source’s webpage, a reader says, “I am a ex-Butte Co. employee and I was amazed at the “good old boy” ethics I experienced. Some departments are run by people who seem to be protected from employee rights and labor law prosecutions.” Another reader said, “The workplace deserves a high degree of professional conduct. If the good old boys are willing to behave like this in the office, what the hell is going on in the streets.”

This is the worry I have and is the reason many officers don’t blow the whistle. The Blue Wall of Silence is hard to penetrate and retaliation for speaking up is swift and career-ending. I’ll keep you posted on what happens with Mr. Sears case but for now, let’s get his story in the running conversation.

Classism in Academia

Next week, I’ll be posting part three of my blog on corporatocracy and the McDonaldization of work in higher education. In part 3 I’ll be talking about what happens among academic workers when their work becomes corporatized and dehumanized. My focus will be on workplace bullying and hostile academic work environments.

Before I do that however, it seems only fair that in this second installment, I share my experience with academic bullying and classism/sexism. I wrote this piece a couple of months after quitting academia, when I was working through feelings and coming to grips with what I thought academia was and what it actually is. This was originally published by my friends 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. 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.

BSU-Shades of Success Conference
Julie and the students she advised and worked with in the Black Student Union at Butte Community College