First off, I owe apologies to a commenter because I promised them, over a week ago, that I had an upcoming post about my research I thought they might find interesting. Not only did I not post when I said I would this post is tangential to my research interests. Please, those of you who take time out of your day to read this blog, stick with me. I do intend to be posting about my research again very soon, but today I wanted to take some time out and talk about something near and dear to my heart.
I’m done with the academic job search for this year. I applied to about 20 positions and was rejected from all of them. My committee assures me this is because I am ABD and that things will be very different next year when I have my PhD in hand. Numerous academic pain pieces tell me this is because of the market glut and the impending collapse of academia. My anxiety tells me it is because, between the ravages of neoliberalism and Trump, we’re all going to die soon.
At this point, however, the reason does not really matter; the fact is that the end of my employment in the academy is a few, precious months away and I have no idea when I will next be employed as a professor.
This has yielded a lot of clarity regarding two things. First, I do really want to work as a professor at a university. While I know I could be happy doing other things this is my first choice. Second, I’ve given a lot of thought to the kind of professor I want to be outside of the classroom. In particular, I hope to have the opportunity to work with first-generation and working-class students. As I near completion of my PhD, I’ve been thinking about the kinds of things that would have made this process easier for a student like me. With that in mind here are five things I intend to do with first-gen and working-class students if/when I get to be a professor:
- Seek them out. I don’t intend to make students fill out a demographics questionnaire if they want to work with me but I will do my best to seek out students with a background similar to mine because I know that one of the biggest motivators in my own career was finding a sponsor who came from a similar background. Representation matters and seeing someone with my background doing my dream job made it less of a dream and more of an aspiration. As a student, I’ve noticed that it has always been easy to find other students who share my background. Indeed, the majority of my closest friends in graduate school are either also first-gen or from working-class backgrounds. We find each other and we support each other. I know there must be codes and signals that we use but I’m not very conscious of them. I just know that I have, from my MA onward, found people with similar backgrounds who could relate to the sense of outsideness I often felt.
- Sponsor them. Over the past year, I’ve been quite taken with literature emerging on the difference between mentors and sponsors. I particularly love this article that talks about how important sponsors are for women in the workplace. I’ve had several great mentors, who have helped me choose a path; and I’ve had a couple of sponsors who have gone out of their way to clear that path for me. Sponsoring students doesn’t mean they will work with me, but it does mean that I will do everything I can to connect them to the people and resources that will help them along their path.
- Teach etiquette. For students that do decide to work with me at either the graduate or undergraduate level, I will insist on etiquette lessons. If you had told me two years ago that I would make this claim I would have laughed at you, but a lot has changed in those two years. I’ve decided that no student that works with me will ever miss out on a networking opportunity because they are too nervous wondering which glass is theirs to pay attention to the conversation. No student of mine will feel out of place because they aren’t sure which fork to use at a company event. There are a lot of very detailed etiquette tutorials on YouTube. I already have some picked out for my future students and we will practice together at the nicest restaurant in town, my treat.
- Provide direction. I may get a little pushback on this one, but here goes: working-class students work harder than other students. After all, it’s expensive to be poor. (I spent some time searching for a good article to link to about how expensive it is to be poor but I couldn’t settle on one. It seemed each of them talked about a different reason why it’s hard to be poor such as increasing housing costs, lack of access to banks due to the Patriot Act, increasing transportation costs, and so on. Perhaps the best description available is the POV film, Waging a Living. But, I digress.) In response to how damn expensive it is to be poor, working-class people work harder. We are used to working more than one job. Outside of my freshmen year of college, I worked at least one job, and often two, and sometimes three, while going to school full-time during my undergraduate degree. In graduate school, I was flummoxed by the idea that school was supposed to now be, really and truly, my only job. This was perplexing for two reasons. First, I was used to working through school and having just one job seemed weird. Second, as a first-gen student, my family really had no frame of reference for what a graduate degree looked like. In fact, just last week I had to remind a very dear family member that, though I am on fellowship this year, I do, in fact, have a job. Most of the working-class graduate students I know eventually pick up a job outside of their full-time assistantship. This is not the place to go into all the reasons for that. (Though I’d love to have a post that shares folks stories so if you would consider sharing yours please contact me!) What I can say now is that nearing the end of my PhD, I wish to God I had someone earlier in my career to provide me with direction on what to do with my incredible work ethic. In short, less service work more writing, less time explaining to your family that you have a job and more time explaining to fellowship committees why your work is valuable, and so on. To my future students at all levels, I promise to help you channel your indomitable work-drive, that force of will that helped you do this incredible thing of being the first person in your family to go to school, to get the most out of your investment.
- Listen. This one may seem obvious, but it’s often amazing how few people are willing to listen to the challenges of first-gen and working-class students. When I was in undergrad I wasn’t aware of the few services that existed and when I got to graduate school I found that most of the institutional support for students like me seemed to disappear. Put simply, we are not expected to get to this place. The system is, in fact, designed to exclude us in a myriad of ways, and even when you get here it is a strange, frustrating, fascinating world. Thus, future students, I promise to listen to your frustrations about the fact that your colleague seems to speed through her research because she can pay out of pocket for that trip to the archives while you have to apply for funding and wait for the decision to even find out if you can go. I promise to listen to your fears that this huge investment might not be worth it and you don’t know how to explain to your family that you got a degree but might not get a job. I promise to listen, too, to your victories and to celebrate them with you.
Beloved, I cannot wait to work with you. To all of those working-class and first-gen colleagues, mentors, and sponsors who have helped me get to where I am today: my sincerest thank you. To my family, who loves me even if they don’t always understand me: I wouldn’t be here without you and I love you.