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Monday, December 7, 2009

Why So Elitist, Academia?

Forgive me please for going off on a tangent on an unrelated rant, but there's something that really burned me the other day and I need to vent. You see, sometimes I feel like I've spent most of my adult life caught in the middle of a domestic squabble between my academic career in the humanities and my Western, rural upbringing. On the one hand, when I embarked on my career as an academic in Laramie eleven years ago, my father gave me a hug and a piece of advice: "Don't let 'em turn you into a commie liberal, okay?"  On the other hand, every time I pull a Leatherman out of my backpack to fix the stapler or the door knob in the graduate office, my fellow grad students look at me like I'm a weapon-toting lunatic.  So I'm a little bit over-sensitive to class issues, I suppose. 

So with that said, a couple of days ago I was at attending a humanities reception.  It was your typical academic affair: a lot of people in dull suits chatting in bored tones while lean-cheeked graduate students cruise the food table multiple times to inhale all the goodies.  There's a bit of a hierarchy among the grad students even: the students in well-funded departments (like mine) can afford to pick lazily at the food.  The poorer ones, the underfunded, famished History students, for example, often wear cargo pants to social events and some have been known to carry Tupperware in their backpacks.

But, to get to the point: I was chatting with one of the professors in another department when a colleague came over to talk, and the conversation turned to his upcoming move...

"So, are you packing yourself or hiring a mover?" Professor Two asks.  
"We're hiring a company to move our things, of course," Professor One replies, "but we've packed the house ourselves."
"I see," Professor Two says.  "Afraid they'll damage things, are you?"
"Absolutely," Professor One responds, chuckling.  "Movers have no clue how to pack books."
"I've noticed that before," Professor One says, stirring his coffee.  "Why do you suppose that is?"
"Well, we are talking about people who don't normally belong to the reading classes," Professor One suggests.  I had to bite my lip and wander off to a corner to blow off some steam while they speculated on the illiteracy levels of your average moving technician.  
Okay, so it's not that big of a deal, really, but I find myself still disappointed and rather ticked at Professor One.  I've worked rather closely with this guy for some time even though he's not in my department, and he's utterly freaking brilliant.  And, once you get past the terrifying "fire-breathing professor from hell" persona he feeds to his undergraduates, he's actually one of the nicest guys you'd ever want to meet.  I have a tremendous amount of respect for Professor One as a scholar and, generally, as a very good fellow. 

But the classism in his comment went over about as well with me as rubbing sandpapaer on my cornea.  There are so many (wrong) assumptions there: that reading is a class-based issue, for one.  The last time I checked it was taught in all public schools.  But, secondly, it really pissed me off that he would just assume that that non-readership in the working classes extends so far as to mean that they don't even know how to treat a book as a material object.     The few movers I've met have a learned wisdom about the materiality of objects and how to handle them with respect.   It has nothing to do with an learned understanding at all.  Professor Two, for instance, can play piano quite well, but I bet for damn sure he doesn't know how to move one, and it's a complicated process that requires a delicate hand.

I can remember one of my favorite intellectual conversations since I've been in college.  I was sitting in a NASCAR-themed steakhouse with a family of the most hayseed, gap-toothed backwater family you'd ever want to meet.  The father and son were both truck drivers, the mom carted around an oxygen tank, one daughter was on government disability and the other was a housewife married to a repairman.  Between the five of them around that dinner table, they knew five different languages, I had one of the best literary discussions I have ever had, and the truck driver dad went on and on with me and my husband about Italian opera and nineteenth century composers.

Their mother (the one with four missing teeth and the oxygen tank) was born the daughter of a strung-out prostitute and grew up sleeping in a neighbor's storage shed next to a pile of boxed-up books.  From the age of seven she started pilfering books out of those boxes and reading everything in sight.  By the time she started the first grade (late), her favorite writer was Shakespeare and she knew most of The Tempest by heart. And starting from the day she started stealing forgotten, musty books to comfort her in the New York cold, she has treated them like treasure.  When she talks of those books, she recalls the color of their covers and how the leather smelled when she cracked them open or the comforting, stiff lump they made when she hid them under her pillow.  She has a personal connection to their materiality that Professor One, coming from the comfortable upper classes, simply can't appreciate. 

And yet, according to Professor One, none of these people belong to the reading classes.  I can tell you for a fact he wouldn't give them the time of day, because I've seen him blow off students with the same red face and unruly hair, the same accent.  And I can't believe what he's missing out on. 

Open up your eyes, Professor.  You don't have a monopoly on reading or on books.  Or wisdom, for that matter.

Or the truth.


  1. I love this post, it has so many good points.

    I love the part about the family at the steakhouse, they sound fascinating especially the Mom!

    I wonder if the Professor just needs to get out more? He must have met some interesting people from outside the 'reading classes', surely!

    Great story, thanks for sharing.

  2. lolavibe,

    Thanks for commenting! I appreciate it.

    Although the whole family is a hoot, I am half in love with my friend's mother (who I'll call "Grace" because she's a miracle). She's a great example of "still waters run deep." In addition to being a warm, sweet and accepting person, she has an extremely nimble mind and makes the most interesting observations about literature. That's in addition to being fluent in Spanish, and the only reason she didn't finish college is because of her health problems.

    It's really sad, but I just don't think the Professor would ever give "Grace" a chance. While he's a great guy mostly, he has some odd ideas about personal worth and I don't think she'd make the cut. He's traveled a lot and seen a lot of things (including Wyoming) but I don't know how much he's gotten out of his comfort zone in the South to meet the locals.

    So I guess "Grace" just have to stay my little secret. ;)

  3. Great topic! You use descriptive words well too! I also enjoyed the dialogue between the two professors! The story was a great reminder of how we all need to remember acceptance and tolerance and that appearance can be oh so deceptive!

  4. Oh, my blood is boiling just hearing this secondhand! And it puts me in mind of the standard realtor advice to pack away as many books as possible as part of the prep for showing your house, on the theory that they make it look "cluttered." I remain strongly skeptical of that, and have also wondered if it mightn't be a less loaded substitute for pointing out that some potential buyers might be offended by what books one has.

    In any case, it solved the mystery of why almost every occupied house we've ever encountered in our own house hunting seemed to be owned by people with no books!