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  • Charlie Rumsby

Why we need working-class academics now more than ever



It is a Saturday night and I haven't been ‘out out’ for a while. As I walk into the pub, I see a friend who I grew up with. I have not had a drink yet. They've been out for some time. Such is the elation in seeing each other that we hug and begin to shower affection on one another. I think that due to Covid, our last meeting was more than two years ago when he stopped me in the street and passed me £20 for my daughter, who he had not met yet.


"Come out for fag", he says. “Sure” I reply. I don't usually smoke (maybe twice a year, usually after a drink) but on this occasion it feels like we're about to have a conversation about something deep. So, sober, I take a smoke.


Immediately my friend starts praising me. Congratulating me on being a 'doctor' (you know, the kind where you don't respond to the emergency call for a medic on a plane). I left Coventry at 18 and before that I was involved in all sorts of illicit activity, firmly climbing the 'illegitimate ladder of opportunity'.[1] We reminisce about joint experiences. Where we grew up, people were afraid to walk through the estate. School friends’ parents were sceptical of you, as were the police. It was such a paradoxical place. A hot mess where domestic violence was high, poverty rampant, and sometimes parents absent. On the other hand, community was solid. Doors were never locked, people looked out for each other, we celebrated life's highs and mourned together in its lows. No hiding your issues. Everyone knew your mess. Mostly because dirty laundry was washed publicly. Oh, and the estate was designed so that houses were organised in squares whereby to look out your kitchen window was to look into the kitchen window of the person opposite you (yes, we had nets but it wasn’t exactly private). Essentially, everyone was forced to look on at everyone else. Like Bentham's panopticon. Aside from the prison-like design, the ‘square’ as we called it was also utilised for parties in the summer. Music speakers would come out, UB40 and 70s/80s reggae played and sometimes karaoke sang.


My friend and I talked about coming home and the 'leccy' (top-up electricity meter) being off, and the hope you had when you pushed the emergency button that someone else hadn't already pressed it. We joked about learning how to nick the 50ps out of the TV; we rented our telly and paid for it via a meter that was attached to the side. The money was collected by the 'telly man' every month. We spoke about how we treasured parts of our childhood but also had to undo some of it. There's nothing unique in nature about being working-class and having to undo childhood traumas, most people have baggage to unpack. Yet, there's something particular about our shared history, culture and community.


Working-class identity is, of course, much more than a matter of one's economic position; it is also a lived experience, a set of relationships, expectations, legacies, and entitlements (or the lack of them) (N Coles and J Zandy 2007 xx)

Standing outside the pub, I know that so many of my middle-class friends, colleagues and new family (inherited through marriage) will never understand the sense of connection I have with other working-class people. Even if I haven’t grown up with them.


As a working-class academic, I personally know three other working-class academics. I have found myself engaged in debates with friends from middle-class backgrounds (admittedly mostly from outside the academy) about whether I am still working-class, now I am an academic. I often retort can’t working-class people read or write or understand the world to a doctorate level? In academic contexts, I have experienced contrasting experiences. I have been asked where I was educated(!), I have been told I don’t sound like I am from Coventry, and I have felt internal anger when listening to people discuss the (global) working-class, or experts trying to grapple with questions related to why ‘they’ make the choices they do etc. etc. I have been subjected to the most annoying correction of my use of localised grammar, and have found (some) of my research training naïve and, strangely, making no use of my own life experience.


I admit, since I went to university in London at the tender age of 19, I have made a significant cultural shift. Becoming university educated and living amongst predominantly middle-class communities, I have appropriated the required social and cultural capital to manoeuvre various social fields, different to my childhood habitus (Bourdieu 1977). Conducting my own research unexpectedly exposed anxieties that, over time, I realised were rooted in my identity as a ‘middle-class trained’ academic researcher. When I began research, I was so nervous to act correctly that I forgot that my greatest skill in participant observation, which requires building rapport quickly, was to be myself. This has meant that when research participants tell me stories of their lives, I too share my own story. I believe this is an equitable and empathetic research exchange. You can’t make up shared experienced, and you shouldn’t try. I do believe that for research to reflect a multitude of lived experiences we need researchers who have a multitude of lived experiences too. This is nothing new, it has been said before. However, the last few weeks I have felt more acutely that we need working class academics more than ever before. Especially, but not exclusively, in the United Kingdom.


Why? Two reasons:


(1) The need to research the impact of the rising cost of living in the U.K in an empathetic way

(2) Working-class students need us


The rising cost of living


In January 2022 inflation hit 5.5% – the highest rate since March 1992. There are more foodbanks in the UK than MacDonald’s,[2] UK wage growth is failing to keep up with the rising cost of living[3] and the squeeze on workers is set to get worse; those on the lowest incomes will most likely be affected by surging bills.[4] We live in a society where teachers are buying food for pupils and their families[5] because zero-hour contracts or low paid jobs mean parents do not have enough money to meet the needs of their family. My guess is that a continued and renewed research interest into the struggles of the working (and under)-class is on the cards. My conviction is that we need more working-class researchers, who are interested, to undertake this research in partnership with middle-class researchers. Preferably to lead on such projects. This would encourage a ‘culturally competent’ approach to this kind of research, which I feel is needed.


‘Cultural competency’ refers to ‘(a) cultural awareness - of practitioners’ own cultural values, beliefs, and attitudes; (b) knowledge - of diverse people and their needs as well as attitudes that enhance the practitioner client relationship; and (c) skills - abilities used to combine awareness and knowledge about others’ (Danso, 2018, p. 415). In this definition, the words ‘practitioner’ and ‘client’ can be swapped for ‘researcher’ and ‘participant’. Culturally competent research would go some way in considering working-class realities from the standpoint of the working-class themselves. That is to allow the working-class to tell their stories, shape their narratives and problematise the privileged world that seeks to define and constrict their lived experience. I am advocating that this research is done from a position of ‘strong objectivity’ (Sandra Harding 1995, p. 348). [6] Preferably with a co-produced research design where possible.


In short, I wonder how much research is done that has an undercurrent of judgement. I wonder how many stories of extreme poverty and exploitation are shared and the researcher has no idea or the ability to connect / represent the situation well. I realise I am blogging right now, and therefore my words are free form and reflective (read speculative). But based on what I have gleaned from how working-class academics have felt judged in the academy, God knows how research communities have felt from the academy’s gaze. Moreover, as an impact agenda grows in the U.K, academic expectations and public facing accessible knowledge transfer is encouraged. I hope that the voices in academia that are already marginalised because of their class can come to represent those with whom they have an affinity with.


Working-class students need us


When I was at university for my undergraduate degree, I worked two jobs to stay afloat. I also had my tuition paid for me and received a maintenance grant from the government. In the beginning I had no idea that most of my peers’ parents were paying for their (London) rents and also gave them an allowance. Now, I honestly, hand-on-my-heart, have no beef with that. They were privileged, good for them. It did leave me at a disadvantage though; the hours spent at work could have been spent in the library.

I went to SOAS for my undergraduate degree. A place with an active student union where students cared about the world around them. In my naivety I actually thought the people around me were also working-class. I was surprised to find out the guy who wore no shoes to university was rich, that a lot of my friends went to private schools, or are the children of diplomats. Again, this didn’t bother me, they still are my friends, they are incredible people and I have always felt accepted by them. But when I was going through university, I did not start on a level playing field. To the best of my knowledge, I was never taught by a council estate kid. Why does that matter?


Well, having taught in a university that has an overwhelming number of working-class students, I can tell you it matters. First, and perhaps most straight forward, it is an issue of representation. It is important for students to know that it is possible for them to go on to have a career in academia. We need people to teach from a situated and research led experience. That is from the point of view of being working-class and from the point of view of someone who has conducted quality research that informs the theoretical frameworks on the working-class experience. Especially so in sociology, anthropology, and cognate disciplines.


Second, I think we need working-class teachers to help working-class students grapple with difficult texts, particularly when they analyse their realities. I have a distinct memory of reading Oscar Lewis’ ‘cultures of poverty’ and feeling uncomfortable due to my own experience of poverty, and on the other hand reading Karl Marx and feeling empowered. I would have loved to have connected with teachers about why this was at the time.


Third, I have also noticed when teaching (in one university in particular) that I have been encouraged to limit the number of readings on the reading list, use more videos and make the classes shorter. Sure, there are different learning styles, I get that. Yet, I have been left feeling that some courses are dumbed down. I have questioned since whether this is something to do with class, and whether working-class students are seen as ‘not able’ to read complex works or more than two readings per class. We should not water down knowledge unnecessarily. Moreover, it’s annoying as a teacher to feel like you must dodge complex discussions (I do not do this btw). For me, this is an issue of teaching training, not student ability.

It is important to note that being working-class is a diverse experience. The working-class are not a monolith. We have different intersectional experiences, from race to gender to orientation and physical abilities. We need all forms of representation. I have only touched on a few issues here. If you are reading this and you can relate / want to join a network of working scholars there are some great networks out there. Here's a few I have come across recently


Alliance of Working-Class Academics. An international collection of academics who have formed the (prev. Assoc) Alliance of Working-Class Academics to support the #workingclass in #academia.

Twitter @AWCAcademics


Working Class Academics: a conference BY working class academics, finding voice, offering space to think, share, create.

Twitter @AcademicsClass


What Is Your Working Class? A new podcast dedicated to sharing individual experiences of working-classness hosted by @Aidan_Teplitzky

Twitter @WhatIsYourWork1 Latest episode with Dr Lisa McKenzie https://open.spotify.com/episode/3d6A23wheYQ1llzgsY6foq


 

Participate in research on the everyday experiences of academics who self-define as working-class.



 

Footnotes

[1] Cloward and Ohlin: Illegitimate Opportunity Structures (1960) [2] https://www.dw.com/en/uk-food-banks-outnumber-mcdonalds-restaurants/a-56952232 [3] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-60373405 [4] https://www.resolutionfoundation.org/publications/the-living-standards-outlook-2022/ [5] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-60764442 [6] In lieu of a situated experience, a critical intersectional perspective that centres participants’ narratives can offer a rich account of the working-class experience.


References

Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge University Press.

Coles, N., & Zandy, J. (2007). American working-class literature: an anthology.

Danso, R. (2018). Cultural competence and cultural humility: A critical reflection on key cultural diversity concepts. Journal of Social Work, 18(4), 410–430.

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