Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

The Unseen Weight of Class

Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

The Unseen Weight of Class

Article excerpt

The people here are more like, I don't want to say sophisticated, but different than me. They seem more cultured. . . . Sometimes I feel like I don't measure up.

Patty, qtd. in Jenny M. Stuber

The ones who make rude or, like, snide remarks, you can tell whether they're sophisticated or whether they're a little more, not necessarily back country, but, like, rural, I guess.

Austin, qtd. in Jenny M. Stuber

To open this review of four very interesting and provocative books about the role of socioeconomic class in higher education, I give voice to two participants from Jenny M. Stuber's Inside the College Gates. Both Patty, a first-generation, middle-class student, and Austin, an upper-middle-class New Yorker, choose the shorthand sophisticated for upper class. As Stuber and the other writers I discuss here point out repeatedly, this pattern generalizes broadly: American higher education is uncomfortable talking about class. Like Patty or Austin, we use a variety of euphemisms or substitutions: sophisticated, rural, cute, streetwise. Or we simply avoid the subject, as Irvin Peckham explains as he opens Going North, Thinking West, showing this bracketing in both broader culture and our discipline of writing studies (16-18). Perhaps we discuss other markers of socioeconomic capital, like race or gender; perhaps not. Designing surveys, we may replace questions about income with parents' education, if we include them at all, or allow participants to skip questions about class or socioeconomic status. Certainly, this quietness holds true at my institution, a regional state comprehensive university that has historically served a large number of under-prepared students, many of them working class or lower middle class. We rarely talk about class, though we feel its weight all the time, in the regular stutterings of long-neglected institutional infrastructure, but more painfully in the realities of students who come to class without books, decline participation in clubs because they have to work, or simply disappear after running out of money. And though our state is beset by a financial crisis that dominated presentations at our annual faculty assembly and continues to shape our campus in many ways, that story has not been told in terms of class. Hence my pleasure considering the research represented in these four books and sharing it here. Favoring sampling over coverage, I'll truncate my summaries of the books in order to examine some of their commonalities and implications with greater depth.

Stuber's book presents the results of an empirical study that compares sixty-one full-time, traditional-age students at two midwestern institutions, one a flagship "Big State" university and the other, "Benton," a small liberal arts college. Through a series of interviews with these students, bolstered by some demographic data and interviews with administrators in student services at both institutions, Inside documents the depth and breadth of the differences between institutions as well as between students of different classes. Lean- ing heavily on Pierre Bourdieu's concept of capital, Stuber focuses on "social and extracurricular realms," given that most students spend far less time in classes and doing homework than they do socializing, participating in clubs and organizations, or, for some, working. For example, participants discuss the selection of dormitories before and during orientation, fall activities fairs that showcase the extracurriculum, and January term study-abroad programs or internships. Repeatedly, Stuber shows how upper-class students exchange social and economic capital in these realms, often without realizing it, calling upon their broad base of resources to achieve the rich educational experience promised at matriculation. In contrast, working-class students are far less suc- cessful. They start out with less and make less of what they have.

Two findings merit special attention. First, Stuber finds that working-class students are far less likely to engage student organizations because they lack time, given they are more likely to work (66), and have fewer social connections to help them discover and join relevant clubs (78). …

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