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.