And now a few words on class, social class that is

by Jonathan Sterne on October 21, 2006

I’ve always thought of some of what academics do as “playing at” being of a higher social class than we are. Major field-wide conferences [cough]NCA![/cough]are held at hotels so expensive that they decimate university travel budgets. Groups of academics routinely go out to meals at these events that they can’t really afford. Broke job candidates are expected to dress in nice, expensive suits while senior faculty interview them wearing torn jeans and a t-shirt (okay, people in my department dress considerably better than that on any given day but you know what I’m saying). The first month or so of an assistant professor’s career can be financially crushing as he or she is drawn into a (more) middle class lifestyle before the funds have arrived. The list goes on.

Last night was one of those rituals. Douglas Kellner has been visiting McGill for the past two days, and part of the gig for these kinds of celebrity guest lectures is a trip to a very fancy restaurant with a group of faculty from the University. In this case, it was one of Carrie’s favorites, Chez l’Epicier. Now, a few words must be said in praise of this restaurant. While other French restaurants have reluctantly accommodated my vegetarianism, Chez l’Epicier has done so gleefully the two times I’ve dined there. They put a lot of effort into creation and presentation, and the place itself is beautiful. We dined in private room downstairs with exposed brick which I suspect is around 200 years old. The meat eaters seemed as pleased as I was, and it’s a very creative version of the French menu, peppered with reductions, “recently seized” meats, and perfectly complementary wines. My main course was a bright red concoction which involved orzo prepared as if it were risotto, combined with beet puree, one and possibly several forms of dairy binder, and served with delicately roasted vegetables on the side — one of which I could not properly identify. There was actual silence for a moment after the meal was served and people began tasting their food.

I write not to review the restaurant (though I just did) but to set the scene for a story about social class that wasn’t intended as a story about social class. At one point during the dinner, we learned that one of my colleagues used to be a carnival barker. Two seats over was a former Vegas lounge singer. Which led another diner to suggest that we do around the table and each tell a story of our worst jobs. This is where social class came in. The implication behind a question like that was that everyone would have this storehouse of crappy (or at least bizarre) jobs they had to work at one time or another to make ends meet. And well, some of us did and some of us didn’t. Some of us had to work hard to figure out which of the crappy jobs to tell a story about and which were crappy in a boring way; others had very few jobs to select from. I suspect I fell somewhere in the middle, since I largely avoided manual labor or tasks involving various kinds of waste but had my share of service industry and telemarketing experience which is its own special kind of hell. Perhaps the fact that we didn’t normally think about social class itself marked our privileged positions (or maybe it was just me), since my colleagues and students from working-class backgrounds seem (sometimes painfully) quite aware of their own class positions as they navigate the social customs and expectations of academic life. But the fact that I can even say where I stood on that very odd measure of social class is what made the conversation remarkable.

For a few minutes last night, an element of background was revealed that normally remains hidden in academic life. In polite company, you’re not supposed to talk about money; last night, we almost did.

amy October 22, 2006 at 4:29 pm

Agreed. Even a discipline that prides itself on being able to critically deconstruct the class structures of society can’t seem to get away from enforcing class performance. One of the worst parts, for me, has been trying to find conference-appropriate shoes that are comfortable enough to wear all day.

muse October 22, 2006 at 11:44 pm

Just writing in to say that this is a particularly brilliant and well written post, Jon. We’re taught to assume that the cultural capital that comes with a Ph.D, or even earlier on with a liberal arts degree effaces class difference. But you’ve pointed out two ways in which it shows its superficiality. I think this was even more true, but by the same token *less* apparent with our parents’ generation. My parents were the first people in their first generation American family to go to college, let alone graduate and attend grad school. But cultural capital back then was much more revered than it is today.

Ted October 23, 2006 at 11:11 am

A great post, Jonathan, and much appreciated. Your remarks reminded my of my first few weeks of employment at Ohio University as (so goes the cliche) a “freshly-minted Ph.D.” The university is on a monthly pay system, and the first paycheck didn’t arrive until the last day of September. Needless to say, money was incredibly tight then, with my having just made a major move, set up a new apartment, and, as you say, been expected to evidence middle-classness through new clothes and the like. (Then, of course, there are all those hidden costs associated with filing a Ph.D. dissertation and graduating, but that’s another matter….)

Another story: the new department chair of a former graduate student with whom I worked floated him a short-term loan, because he literally had no money after finishing his Ph.D. He was an international student, for what it’s worth, and particularly hard-hit by the change-over from economically hamstrung graduate student to expected-to-be-middle-class professor.

Le Meg October 25, 2006 at 9:39 am

Doug Kellner was just in Paris a few weeks ago being taken to fancy french restos! That boy knows how to work it.

Why are YOU not in Paris being fed?


Le Meg October 25, 2006 at 9:41 am

And…what a beautiful post.

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