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Class Matters

Skidmore College professor urges an examination of whether the academy ignores class in the push for diversity.

By Patricia Valdata

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 often 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. Particularly in the humanities, we put a huge amount of weight on discourse in the classroom. Working-class homes are not always places where a lot of talking about things takes place, so students find it very difficult to do the amount of talking that comes naturally to middle-class kids.

DI: So what can faculty do?

JGC: Faculty members who come from working-class backgrounds could serve as mentors for these students. I don’t think faculty who are from working-class backgrounds think of themselves as diverse unless they also belong to other minority groups. For instance, some of our African-American students are very differently classed than some of the African-American faculty. Yet the minority or the diversity difference that makes us link faculty with students is the racial one, rather than the class one. It may be that the class one is more fundamental for some students than the racial one.

DI: You have mentioned elsewhere that faculty, once they attain faculty rank, don’t want to distinguish themselves from their peers.

JGC: Yes, I think that’s true. Your success has been partly dependent on your ability to distance yourself from that working-class world. The pressures of the academy encourage you to do that. Every time I step forward on campus and say, “I’m from a working-class background, and this is how it affects the way I teach and the way I interact with students,” other faculty members have come up to me afterwards and said, “I’m from that kind of background, too, but I never really thought about accessing that knowledge as a way to help my own students.” Until the institution foregrounds that kind of difference and we make it a way of linking particular faculty with students, it’s still going to remain in the background, compared with the efforts to match other kinds of minority students with minority faculty, which happens pretty regularly.

DI: Class is not a subject Americans like to talk about.

JGC: No, not at all. I teach a freshman course called “Class Matters” in which we deal precisely with that question. What usually comes out is that students are much more sensitive to the notion that they should not be prejudiced against people who are racially different, but it hasn’t occurred to them that they carry harmful stereotypes of people from other classes. They come up against some knowledge about themselves that might not be all that pleasant, but I am consistently told by the students that it really opens them up to other ways of thinking.

DI: Do you have specific ideas about how institutions can foreground this form of diversity?

JGC: I would like to see more support for students who are identified as first-generation college students. Here at Skidmore they get academic and social support, advising and counseling, but they tend to get it from the staff and faculty who work directly with the academic opportunity program. They become invisible once they step into the larger campus and their faculty don’t know who they are. Even more important, it doesn’t occur to those students that some of the faculty members whose classes they’re sitting in might be just like them. So I keep coming back to that notion of making some of these faculty members more visible.

DI: Can you give some examples of how you try to bring these matters out in some of your own classes?

JGC: In my “Class Matters” course, one of the first things I do is ask students to fill out a questionnaire where they identify their own class

  background. I ask them, for instance, “What kinds of jobs have your parents had? What kinds of jobs have you had? What class status do you think you hold?” They pass that in and then I come out to them as somebody who came from the working class. I use examples from my own life to talk about some of the problems associated with our assumptions that everybody is middle class. It makes students more willing to talk about themselves if I’m willing to talk about myself. But obviously it only works in a course that is focused on the question of class. DI: What about a course that’s not so focused?

JGC: I try to be particularly attentive to students whose behaviors might indicate a class difference. I’m aware of my own tendency when I was a student not to participate as frequently, to be intimidated by the level of discussion. So although I do grade for class participation, I will reach out to students who are not participating and try to get to know them. Then I try to help them figure out strategies for increasing their participation. I encourage them, for instance, to answer the very first question I ask, so they don’t get intimidated by what other students are saying.

DI: What can colleges and universities do?

JGC: I’m not sure we can accommodate class difference in the same way that we accommodate, for instance, racial difference or sexual orientation difference or gender difference. I am hoping to raise the question of whether we’re a little too self-satisfied in our diversity rhetoric; that is, we’re a little too sure that we can accommodate all kinds of difference. It’s a monumental task.

DI: You still identify as a person from a working-class background. Is that background such an intrinsic part of us that when we behave in middle-class ways we are just putting on another layer?

JGC: Oh, I think that’s very true. Many of the students who are middle class buy into the notion that we should never look down on the working class, but it astonishes them to discover that working-class people often are very disdainful of them. There’s always class tension in all directions. The whole question of who is working class and who is not has become increasingly complicated as more people have access to higher education. Some traditionally working-class jobs pay more than some of the jobs that are based on mental labor, and so the lines have become very fuzzy.

DI: The context and complexity make class a tough challenge.

JGC: In fact, our conversations about diversity oversimplify the problem. All you can really hope for is increased sensitivity, it seems to me, because the particular problems raised by working-class students in some ways threaten academic ideals, or at least call some of those ideals into question. Class diversity is a real hot point. It’s an important place where we can investigate those diversity rhetorics and see how well they’re working.

DI: I’m sure that’s going to make a lot of people very nervous.

JGC: I’m quite aware of that. But you know, this comes from a very basic place, and that is my own experience. I have plenty of students like me. I also really want to highlight that whole issue of our diversity rhetoric, of our tendency to use diversity as if it’s a monolithic term, as if we can “fix it” or “do it right.” It’s an admirable goal for us to try to accommodate it more fully, but I’m not convinced that we will ever get to a place where we can always do that. We need to just keep foregrounding these examples of minority groups who are not being accommodated by a particular way of talking about it, and make their issues a little more visible. That’s really the most we can hope for.

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