When I was growing up in east London, I knew what working class meant but didn’t know that it had a name.
Working class meant watching my mum organise money into envelopes labelled ‘water’, ‘gas’, ‘electric’, ‘mortgage’ and ‘savings’ every week. Working class meant mum doing a paper round to supplement her income as a dinner lady in a school. Working class meant not having a car. Working class meant getting buses not trains. Working class meant collecting coupons for the weekly shop. Working class meant a trip to McDonalds was a special treat, where mum could only afford to buy me a burger and chips, so she wouldn’t eat anything. Working class meant being awestruck at friends who owned more than one television. Working class meant not eating pesto or houmous until I was seventeen.Working class meant not having money.
It also meant that many careers just didn’t come into my orbit of attention; definitely not academia. As a PhD candidate, I was constantly wrong footed by the unspoken codes that governed conferences. The concept of ‘networking’ was alien to me. But I’m just here to present a paper, no? No dear, you’re not. This is a natural rite of passage for everyone, yet I often wonder if my upbringing exacerbated these challenges. I never met an academic before going to university. My mum’s social circle was in a different universe to the one I now mix in. I didn’t realise I spoke with a strong east end accent until I arrived in Exeter.
University was a mythical word that was occasionally uttered when I was growing up. I remember thinking it was a place where life started and success was guaranteed. This is as much a success of marketing as it is of culture. The image of university as a hallowed space continues to persist, as does the stigma of intellectual pursuits across the class divide, but it is particularly acute for the working class. My skills in English and Drama were often valued by my family because they increased the likelihood of my getting a well paid job. If I had worried about my career I would certainly not have studied drama. I was the first in my extensive family to go to university, much less become an academic. Mum often struggles to explain to my uncles and cousins what I ‘do’, which exacerbates the sense that I am not doing a ‘real job’.
I have been working in academia for nearly eight years, yet I have only just started to shed my imposter syndrome. The tension between the class one comes from and the one they end up in never lets up because it is impossible to forget the profoundly different ways people live in our society. Sometimes I despair over the philistinism so prevalent in British culture with regards to higher education, but then I remind myself it is not always ill founded. The social codes we academics abide by often has nothing to do with our jobs but with signalling our status to each other and the outside world. If we can try and ditch these then maybe universities will stop resembling Emerald Cities to those who don’t grow up in the right circles.