Middle Class Studies?

It is common now, when teaching about race, to turn students’ attention to “Whiteness Studies” and to the  unearned and often invisible privileges of whites in relation to people of color.  It’s understood now that merely teaching white people about “them” or encouraging white teachers to reflect on their conscious attitudes about race is never enough.  We have to also dig deeper into the taken-for granted privileges that sustain oppression.

Several recent studies about make me wonder about the potential of “middle class studies” as part of teaching and learning  about class and education.

For example,  this study out of Berkeley demonstrated that our ability to quickly “read” a variety of subtle social signals enables us to perceive the social class of others relatively early in social exchanges. Some of the markers identifying higher status individuals are particularly intriguing:

In general, powerful individuals are less dependent on other people, and tend to show more nonverbal disengagement, than less powerful people do. Studies find, for example, that high-power individuals, compared with low-power individuals, focus their gaze less on other people (particularly people of high status; Ellyson, Dovidio, & Fehr, 1981; Hall, Coats, &Smith LeBeau, 2005), are more likely to interrupt, and tend to speak at greater length—behaviors that reflect a relative lack of attention to others (DePaulo & Friedman, 1998).  …

For example, a meta-analytic review of status and nonverbal behavior found that, in comparison with lower-SES individuals, upper-SES individuals speak in ways that are less attentive to the audience, for example, making fewer turn-inviting pauses (Hall et al., 2005).

A second study also done at Berkeley suggests that upper-class people feel less compassion in response to suffering than lower-class people.

Our findings suggest that when a person is suffering, upper-class individuals perceive these signals less well on average, consistent with other findings documenting reduced empathic accuracy in upper-class individuals (Kraus et al., 2010). Taken together, these findings suggest that upper-class individuals may underestimate the distress and suffering in their social environments.

And this recent study suggests that the individualistic norms of college classes, norms that work well for competitive, independent work styles of middle-class students, may undermine the academic success of first-generation college students.

These studies  share the limitations of any research done with undergraduates in “lab” settings rather than in day-to-day interactions.

But they are suggestive.

So much of education policy and practice focuses on “fixing” poor and working- class kids.  Might not we also begin to speak openly about how class privilege may limit development of such basic human traits as compassion for suffering?

Some things I’ve been wondering about as I’ve been reading this new body of work:

Policy makers have long been touting the importance of teachers’ academic preparation as key to closing achievement gaps (and academic preparation might is, indeed, essential), but might, for example,   those privileged young people in Teach for America be missing key relational qualities that could be essential to building safe and supportive classrooms for poor kids?

Might all the teachers who regularly come here to defend Ruby Payne ( here, here, and here, for example) and her tired Culture of Poverty approach to “understanding” low income kids might come to understand that merely teaching poor and working-class kids to emulate mythical middle class culture is selling them short? And that understanding poor kids in our classrooms is never only about learning lists of things about “them” but also about our own deeply-engrained inability to see how our own actions disadvantage others?

I wonder about how often first-generation college students have written of their sense of “just not belonging” in academia, and how that sense of unease may be fed by middle-class propensity for “behaviors that reflect a relative lack of attention to others”.    I know that even now, as a highly-educated middle-aged woman, I still catch myself feeling that I need to earn the recognition of higher-status people I meet, that it will take effort to get on their radar.    It’s so easy to take this personally, to wonder if I’m still talking too loudly and too assertively and too working-class.  But it may well also be about them.

There would seem to be any number of fruitful lines of research suggested in these initial recent studies.

What might a field of “Middle Class Studies” include?

Will My Colleagues Judge Me?

Home  sick, I’ve been clicking around  the web and came upon this post on Corporette, a blog read by thousands of young women seeking advice about clothing and etiquette in the corporate workplace — in other words, they come to this site for coaching in middle- class based norms of dress and behavior in professional settings.

This post made me sit up straighter.  Rather than asking about maintaining fashion sense in footwear even on snowy days (the more common sort of conversation on this site),  one young woman, an aspiring law student identifying herself as being from a poor background, asked this:

My fiance is a mechanic – he loves his career and would not change it for the world, however, I am worried – will my colleagues judge me because of this?

And the author of blog, and  202 commentors  (to date) weighed in.   What unfolds is a fascinating discourse on class and education, though it’s rarely named as such.
The owner of the blog first weighs in with classic blue-collar stereotypes (on which she’s called by several commentors):
Can he make dinner conversation with people on “educated” topics? On a more basic level, are his table manners and his grammar good (or is he open to improving them)?
In the discussion that follows,  a number of lawyers mention that they never encounter any working-class people in their work lives.    Many lawyers frame the issue personally — lawyers are by nature “self-absorbed” so they’d either not notice others or would possibly, as individuals, be snobs.  Others tell tales of working-class partners who behave in professional settings.   Only a few mention that many highly educated lawyers are lousy conversationalists and slobs at the table.
And there are stories here of other women who have experienced exactly the kinds of judgments that the questioner feared.
As is usually the case with blogs that generate this much response, nothing is resolved, but I’m fascinated that a young woman with high aspirations (and apparently, the accomplishments to justify them) knows, at this juncture in which she’ll take the next step into daily interaction with those from class backgrounds much higher than her own, that class matters in ways that her new colleagues may never understand.
The comments are worth the read.
What catches your eye in this complex conversation?

Learning for Learning’s Sake…

It was yet another conference paper on first-generation college students, and yet another lament about how “they  don’t value learning for learning’s sake”.  “They want to know how everything relate to careers”, the presenter said.   “They complain about having to take courses like the history of pop music”, she sighed. I’d long ago stopped making snarky tabulations on my notepad every time she emphatically said “they” when talking about these students.

During the Q and A, I sat on my hands for awhile and then asked what the middle-class students said about learning for learning’s sake.

But the study wasn’t about them.  So no one had asked. The assumption seemed simply to be that if students from working class backgrounds expressed frustration with courses, curriculum, or the relevance of what they were required to do, it was evidence of a flawed values system.

But someone else on the panel then spoke up. “It’s money that they value”, she said.  She cited studies of the value that middle-class kids place on their college education. For them, she said, the intellectual took a backseat to the  earning potential that a degree would confer.

The middle class didn’t value learning for learning’s sake, either.

I haven’t seen those studies, but am still somewhat amazed when Ph.D.s who often are in it for the love of learning are surprised that anyone else isn’t.

And when I see studies like this recently released report on the alarming rates of cheating among high school students, I wonder how anyone can still think that students anywhere are driven primarily by a hunger of the mind.

But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:  Middle class kids know how to intellectualize their complaints, how to feign interest, how to just stay quiet when it’s in their strategic interest to do so.  Working class kids may well wonder often and loudly why the hell they’re borrowing hundreds of dollars for a course on the history of pop music.

But learning what we’re teaching purely for the love of learning?

In my dreams.

Because if we really value learning, we have to value the learners, even when what we’re teaching isn’t self-evidently interesting to them, even if they’ve grown up within cynical times, even when they’re from backgrounds very different from our own.

…even if we have to be willing to look past the surface level differences to see the complicated lives withn which all of our students now contextualize their education.

Middle Class Privilege

The organization Class Action offers terrific resources on class and classism, and in their recent newsletter Building Bridges, they write of the important discourse sparked by Peggy McIntosh’s piece, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (which you can easily find via Google, but since many of the copies on the web may be bit casual about copyright, I’m not linking here), even as they note that many of the items on her list are experienced by middle class whites, but not by lower income white people.

The exercise that Will Barratt and his colleagues developed that morphed into that “privilege meme” a few months ago was one take on developing a parallel class privilege list.

In the Building Bridges newsletter, the Class Action people offer another take on a middle class privilege list, They acknowledge that this list is far from definitive, given the many ways that race and gender complicate class privilege.

Thus, they invite others to contribute their own lists at <privilege at classism.org>. I’d invite you to cc me in the comments below.

Middle Class Privileges

  1. The “better people” are in my social class; I know this because they are the ones reported on and valued in the media and in school.
  2. People appear to pay attention to my social class; we set the standard.
  3. When I, or my children, are taught about history, people from my social class are represented in the books.
  4. I can swear, or dress in second-hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the laziness, poverty, or illiteracy of my class.
  5. The neighborhoods I can move to, where I feel “at home”, typically have better resourced schools.
  6. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization”, I am shown that people of my class made it what it is.
  7. I can be pretty sure that my children’s teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others’ attitudes toward their class.
  8. I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my class.
  9. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my class.
  10. I am never asked to speak for all people in my class.
  11. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of poor and working class people who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my class any penalty for such oblivion.
  12. My culture gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives and powers of people in other classes.
  13. I am not made acutely aware that my shape, bearing or body odor will be taken as a reflection of my class.
  14. I can worry about classism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.
  15. I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my class.
  16. If I have low credibility as a leader, I can be sure that my class is not the problem.
  17. I can read recipes and purchase whatever ingredients or appliances they might call for.
  18. I can invite my friends out for an evening and not have to think about whether they can afford it or not.
  19. I don’t need to worry about learning the social norms of others.

What else might you add as a manifestation of middle class privilege?