One of these things is not like the others: on being an academic from a non-academic family

My first culture shock in academia came in graduate school when I noticed that, for the first time in my life, most of the people around me were from much more affluent backgrounds (Did you read Sarcozona’s post last week on poverty in academia? You should. In fact, if you haven’t, go read it now. I’ll wait. Done? Good.). My experiences with poverty and a working-class family were similar to Sarcozona’s, and financial instability definitely added stress to my life and occasional to awkwardness to conversations with colleagues. But for me, the hardest aspect of making the transition to academia was much closer to home.

As a grad student, the majority of my peers and faculty came from academic families; at least one parent was an academic or white collar professional of some kind. If you took the average graduate student in my program, it was almost a guarantee that one or both of their parents went to graduate school, medical school, law school, or at least worked as teachers. Many of them had parents who were professors– they’d literally grown up in an academic culture. They knew how things worked. They had parents who were able to support them financially, but also emotionally.

In contrast, my parents never graduated from college, and so had only vague ideas of what graduate school was like. They were proud of me for getting into graduate school, especially when they discovered that I’d be paid to go and would get fantastic benefits. Having said that, they were disappointed that I wanted to be a “college professor” and not a doctor or lawyer– growing up, these were the two careers that, in my family, signified signs of success and class mobility, and were the natural choices if you were smart enough to make it– at Harvard or Yale, of course. So while they didn’t quite understand my choice to pursue something other than medical or law school, they were supportive.

As the years went on, though, things got more and more awkward. My parents didn’t understand “what was taking so long?” (I did a MS and PhD in seven years), or why I’d chosen a career where I’d be making “peanuts” (my dad’s words when I told him the average salary of an assistant professor). They didn’t understand, no matter how many times I told them, that I didn’t have summers off. They had no idea why I was stressed out, or that I worked, at times, for 70+ hours a week (this was not a problem when I had comparable work weeks at retail and food service jobs). They didn’t understand my research, or why it mattered, and often cracked jokes that made me feel like an egghead. They didn’t understand about the stresses of qualifying exams, or publishing papers. “You’ll do fine, you always do, you’re smart!” they’d say, not realizing that it felt like a dismissal of all the hard work I was putting in, and that the job market is uncertain even with stellar qualifications. The only reason I walked at graduation was because, unlike my defense, my regalia was a symbol they could understand.

When I went on the job market, even though I’d told them repeatedly that I had very little control over where I got a job, they still didn’t understand why I didn’t move back home. My in-laws (also working class) made snide remarks about my marriage, not understanding why my husband would “let” me move to another time zone to do a postdoc (“Finally, the Ivy League!” said my mom when she learned of my position). Even when I landed my dream job, they passive-aggressively communicated their disappointment that it was in the wrong state, at the wrong kind of school, and– let’s be honest, here–the wrong kind of job.

Because here’s another thing: I’m not just the only academic in my family, I’m really, really good at passing for affluent. I self-identify as a feminist, I have liberal politics. Over the years, I’ve acquired tastes for things like opera and fine dining. So not only do my family not understand my career choices, they think my education has turned me into a snob. Not only am I not a doctor or a lawyer, but I’ve managed to pick up politics they find bewildering at best and embarrassing at worst. My family is largely conservative, anti-choice, and don’t believe in global warming or taxpayer-funded science and they think that women should put their kids in daycare. Often, these beliefs clash awkwardly with their acknowledged (if conflicted) pride and love for me, but usually they seem unaware that their rants against straw feminists, scientists, and liberal universities are also attacks on me as a person.

I love my family, and I do believe that my family loves me. But they don’t understand my career, and it’s hard not to feel that on some fundamental level, they don’t understand me. Family gatherings have gotten harder over the years, as I’ve had less and less in common with them, and they can no longer get by asking me how school’s going. My siblings with non-academic career choices and babies and military service and sports achievements have made life choices that are easier to relate to. They produce things that can be hung on a refrigerator and shared with co-workers and which are a currency with value in their world. Meanwhile, I watch my siblings grow closer as adults, and I move farther away in physical and emotional distance. My family often tells me I should just quit my job and move back to my rural hometown. I know that to them, they’re saying We miss you!, but it’s so hard not to hear I don’t understand you, or value what you do.

Class mobility is not just a process of struggling to fit in amongst your new peers, but also feeling like you’re betraying your roots. It’s really, really difficult to successfully walk on both sides of an invisible line.

I’m getting better a coping with this. I work on building a chosen family of close friends and colleagues who are going through similar experiences. I’ve done the mental work of laying out realistic expectations for my family members, and focusing on the things we can relate to. I try to be patient, and to gently educate them on the realities of my career. A liberal use of filters and carefully managed settings on Facebook helps me to avoid the worst of the conflicts. I make sure that I have a safe set of topics to engage on– babies (other peoples’, not mine), the weather (not climate change!), sports). Traveling cross-country for the holidays requires a much longer time window than my family is used to planning for, and so I make contingency plans. I remember my audience, and use appropriate analogies, and avoid jargon about my work or my job. I’ve found therapy to be really, really helpful. So is being married to a supportive spouse who also comes from a working-class background and is sympathetic to these struggles.

Have you found making the transition to academia from a non-academic family awkward? What are your sticking points? Is it different if you come from a middle or upper-class background as well? What are your coping strategies?

82 thoughts on “One of these things is not like the others: on being an academic from a non-academic family

  1. I can partially relate to your post. I grew up very poor, but my Dad had grown up poorer. He came from a criminal underclass of travelers where nobody had a job, let alone a working-class one. Violence, addiction and incarceration was a way of life. He was a sensitive soul, though, and used to go to his local library to read Norse myths to avoid the chaos at home. He was never educated, but recognised education as way out, at least mentally, from the chaos around him. To me he was able to offer an impoverished but supportive upbringing. In this way he has a true sense of the personal value and rewards of intellectual pursuits. My grandfather was illiterate, my father had only secondary-level education, and I’m doing a PhD in Literature. He hasn’t the foggiest about my research and, to be honest, I don’t like talking about it to my family as I don’t want them to feel that they cannot relate to me. I’m still who I am, I just work in academia. I think you have to keep that separation. Hey, I can talk to them about popular fiction and films without deconstructing them – do you think some of your problems could be remedied by keeping your two worlds separate to an extent?

  2. Pingback: Tenure, She Wrote Turns One! | Tenure, She Wrote

  3. I identify so much with receiving this advice from parents, friends, etc: “You’ll do fine, you always do, you’re smart!”

    I don’t know what to say other than that is the least helpful advice ever.

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