Guest blog post By Kate Haddow
Firstly, thank you to the wonderful Res-Sisters, because if it wasn’t for their inspirational speech at the BSA Postgraduate pre-conference day this blog would have been lost in the abyss of unfinished documents collecting on my laptop. Thank you to my fellow PG students who provided me with support and helped me put my often jumbled thoughts in to some kind of written work here. Finally thanks to the BSA PG Forum for putting on a great show.
I often wander around universities looking at different people and think how the hell did I get here? Who allowed me to be a PhD student? Me a working class lass from the North East doing a PhD? On the other hand I can’t help but laugh at university when you meet fellow students or even academics who brag about their humble origins and how they are working class ‘through and through’. I find now it’s becoming almost a competition to see who came from the most humble beginnings. It’s very much the four Yorkshire man sketch. “Well I had to work twelve jobs when I was six so we could afford to eat” then someone will reply, “oh that’s nothing that, we had to eat my little brother in order to survive”. Meanwhile you’re stood there rolling your eyes.
They go on point scoring about their so called working class background and you’re left thinking ‘are you hell working class mate, at best you’re a polished version of working class’. I often look at these people and wonder do they still know how it feels to be working class? And in what ways they are connected to that identity? Similarly when senior academics tell us their life story at start of a lecture, they go on about how they’re ‘proper’ working class, and that they came from ‘such and such’ an area. Meanwhile in your head you’re going ‘OK, that’s not exactly a council estate’ and you notice there is no trace of the associated, strong regional accent. What is never mentioned is the journey from those working class roots to the position they are in now, which is generally one of great privilege and power. It is always just brushed over like it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to become a Professor.
Don’t worry I am not going on to give you a sob story of how I am a true working class lass, all I will say is I grew up in a small mining community, my mam is a nurse and my dad was a mechanic, and no I’ve never had to eat a sibling. But I for one would be interested to hear about these working class professors’ adventures in academia, and compare them to my own experiences. From around the age of fifteen I always wanted to do a PhD and I knew it wouldn’t be a smooth, seamless transition but I had no idea just what it would cost me emotionally to endure the bumpy road to get to my PhD.
I have always been labelled as a borderline student, not quite first class but always a reliable solid 2:1 candidate. I think the term ‘borderline’ sums me up nicely, in academia I have never felt like I truly fitted in to a nice neat category, rather I just float between groups. I thought it was the best day of my life being awarded a scholarship for my master’s degree but my brief and turbulent time at a local Russell Group University would test my passion for social research to its very limits, and would lead me to question my own academic abilities. Even though I lived locally to this university I had never felt so lonely in all my life.
The lowest point of my master’s degree was after a meeting with an academic, I waited outside their office and like the dedicated student I was, I had thoroughly prepped for this meeting. In my arms I was cradling all my colour coordinated paperwork which contained a list of things I wanted to discuss. When I entered the office the word “hi” had barely left my mouth when the academic told me that the meeting would be cut short to only fifteen minutes because they had a very important meeting to attend. Sure enough they kept to their word, and after fifteen minutes they cut me off mid-sentence and said “anyway, time to go” and practically shoved me out of their door. As I was hastily gathering all my papers and scooping up my bag, I fell over and dropped my pile of papers on the floor. My beloved (and expensive) Paperchase lever arch file spilt in two and my many months of hard work leaked across the corridor. As I pulled myself to my knees another academic came rushing along the corridor, I thought to myself, ‘oh how nice, they are going to help me out’. Instead they gave me a brief, puzzled look and said to the academic I had just come out of the meeting with, “we need to go now”. They both looked at me on sat on the floor in a sea of paper and one said, “Oops, sorry can’t stop” then trampled on my papers and rushed off to their meeting. I sat and sobbed my heart out. Was I invisible? Was this where I belonged, on the floor while they towered above me? I sat for a good few minutes just thinking about how little I was thought of by some academics and some (not all) of my fellow students.
My time at this particular red brick university was full of people looking down at me as soon as I opened my mouth and my strong regional accent become heard. I noticed if I voiced my opinion in a class or at a committee I was known as the ‘loud’ one, compared to other middle class students who when they spoke were considered ‘passionate’ and ‘driven’. Whenever I expressed any interest in doing a PhD to academics their reactions were polarised. On the one hand I had people who were so supportive and encouraged me to follow dreams and believed in my abilities. Then there were the others who simply told me things like, ‘you know it’s competitive don’t you’, without further advice.
A working class female academic once told me told me my journey would be a lonely one, and she was right. At the BSA Postgraduate forum day I was asked to talk about my relationship with higher education and without hesitation I said to my fellow students, “I live in no man’s land, I constantly float between groups of people but I belong nowhere, because I feel accepted by no one”. When I stay at my mam’s and chat with family members I feel misunderstood. I think in some ways they see me as a traitor for almost abandoning my working class roots. Some of my family and friends view me as odd and many people say to me a something along the lines of, ‘you’re a student wait ‘til you get in the real world, wait ‘til you start working’. Yet at the same time these same family members and friends are my biggest supporters, my graduation pictures always take pride of place on the mantelpiece, and when I bump into people who have known since I was a toddler I often am told, “oh my you have done so well, and what a great job your mam did all by herself”. It’s all very mixed signals from everyone. I notice my middle class colleagues don’t get this surprised reaction, probably because it was expected that they would go in to higher education. I was never expected to be a PhD student and I wasn’t encouraged by many either.
Being a working class PhD student is hard. I work full time on my PhD, not including my prep for teaching or conferences that I am expected to attend, or the other commitments I have to university committees or societies to help make my CV ‘stand out’. Then when I get home I have the joys of unpaid domestic labour to look forward to. When I ring my mam I get told off because I haven’t spoken to her for a whole three days, and I regularly sit at my university desk and hear my phone vibrate to see a text message from a friend saying “hi you about, wanna go out for a bit”, this message from a friend who still doesn’t understand that I am required to actually work for this PhD.
What truly breaks my heart and has really cemented this idea that I belong nowhere, is when I interview participants for my research. I love my participants, they are why I am doing a PhD, they keep me grounded and remind me of my roots and they inspire me to keep going. Sadly, many of my participants do not feel we share any commonalities. One interview that will always haunt me is when I talked to a young woman about her foodbank use, her bottom lip began to wobble and tears filled her eyes as she recalled the emotional distress of using a foodbank. I felt like I couldn’t just sit there and watch this poor woman break her heart, so I put down my pen and paper, paused my Dictaphone and flung my arms round her. As she was crying in my arms and I attempted to comfort her she snapped at me “its okay for you, you have no idea what’s it like”. I have faced the same struggles as this at some point in my life, but it is clear that some of my participants think I don’t know their struggles. This is the paradox of being a working class academic.
Although I did find some comfort from the Res-Sisters’ talk and my new found friends at the BSA pre-conference day, a fellow PhD student said something that stopped me in my tracks and really made me think about my experiences of higher education. Many of my friends and family have attributed my success in higher education to luck, and in a way I have been guilty of this, often saying “oh I was lucky I got the funding”. It was during a conversation with this lovely fellow PhD student who said, “no you haven’t been lucky you have clearly worked incredibly hard to get to where you are now”, that I suddenly thought ‘she’s bloody right I have worked hard to get here!’ Why, as a working class woman do I attribute success too pure luck, when others brag about their excellence? Most likely because as women we are told to be modest, and my experience of being working class has told me bragging is just not the done thing, sadly.
To sum up then, what I took from the Res-Sisters’ talk and the BSA PG conference day was that I will continue to be me. I am not going to be sorry for my upbringing and I will not allow anyone to make me feel like I belong on the floor! I will speak out and not be silenced by middle class colleagues and I will continue to be the ‘loud’ one in the crowd. Most importantly I will tell myself I am good enough to be a PhD student and I do belong in a university setting.