Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Class Matters: Skidmore College Professor Urges an Examination of Whether the Academy Ignores Class in the Push for Diversity

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Class Matters: Skidmore College Professor Urges an Examination of Whether the Academy Ignores Class in the Push for Diversity

Article excerpt

Ever since George Washington opted for the title of president rather than king, Americans have been uncomfortable with the idea of class distinctions. But Dr. Janet Galligani Casey says it's time for liberal arts colleges to examine how current diversity rhetoric ignores class distinctions while the culture of the academy actively promotes movement from one socioeconomic class to another.

Galligani Casey, who grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Somerville, Mass., specializes in modern American literature and culture, in particular ideologies of class and gender and late 19th- and 20th-century leftist literature and working-class literature, especially of the depression. Her article "Diversity, Discourse, and the Working-Class Student" appeared in the July-August issue of Academe.

DI: What makes class different from the more visible kinds of diversity?

JGC: Two things. You noted the first one, that it's not visible, even though people sometimes assume that it is. We either don't think about it or we assume that all the people in front of us are roughly of the same class, usually the "great middle class," in the United States. The other thing is that class issues cut across all the other kinds of diversity. Racial difference, sexual orientation difference or gender difference can be celebrated because they don't threaten the ideals of the institution, whereas working-class pride is something that upsets the ideals of the institution.

DI: What is it about working-class pride that is so counter to middle-class culture?

JGC: Working-class culture is all the things middle-class culture often is not. The academy explicitly is setting up students for white-collar jobs, not blue-collar jobs, so right there you have an erasure of that blue-collar experience. I think, too, the academy is reinforcing an awareness of the arts that may be at variance with a lot of people's working-class experiences, so to celebrate working-class roots is really problematic for students. I was one of those kids myself. I would have sooner died than admit that my parents didn't go to college. There is, of course, an aspect of working-class culture that is enormously proud, but students have to squelch that, because they can't afford to be disdainful of the middle-class culture they are joining. It necessarily involves losing part of that blue-collar background or distancing yourself from that background in a way that's very painful.

DI: What problems result from this for students?

JGC: The biggest one is the sense that they have no home. They often feel very ill suited to the colleges they attend. They're very different from their peers and they know that, but they also can't quite go back to where they were. They've become different from their parents, and so they feel like they're in limbo. A lot of working-class kids come from homes where education is associated with getting a better job, with moving ahead. They're not prepared for seminar-style courses that place a lot of emphasis on discourse or identity politics, so they're just not ready for some of the ways we think in academia.

DI: What else?

JGC: Students are often reluctant to seek help. They frequently come from backgrounds that teach a sink-or-swim attitude. Of course, I'm being categorical here, and that's not fair, but they often have a tendency to distrust the sort of networking that middle-class students are used to. Middle-class students are much less reluctant about seeking a professor's help, for instance. I know as a working-class student I never once went to a faculty member's office to ask for help.

DI: What are the implications for faculty working with these students?

JGC: Faculty omen misread some of these attitudes. They keep saying--and I've done this myself--"Please come and see me if you have any problems," not always recognizing how difficult that is for some students. …

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