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Monday, October 4, 2010

Welfare Cheese, the Working Class and the Tenure Class (or, the Cheese Stands Alone)

I attended the Third National People of Color Legal Scholarship Conference a few weeks ago. It was a wonderful event; it was well-organized and intellectually stimulating and offered a broad array of presentations. The National POC is an event that began in 1999 with the coming together of the several regional People of Color Legal Scholarship Conferences. The focus of the national event, like the regional events, is to provide a forum for law professors of color (and other professors with interest in issues concerning law faculty of color) to present scholarly work in an intellectually rigorous but warmly supportive atmosphere. I have long credited the POC conferences with my success in academia, and by success, I mean the fact that I am still here. M’la; m’ap kenbe toujou, as they say in Haiti.

During one of the dinner events at the National POC, I was tickled when one of the speakers referenced welfare cheese. There was a brief wave of laughter, ranging from polite titters to hearty guffaws. It struck me all of sudden: some of the people there not only didn’t know what welfare cheese was, they’d probably never eaten any. Welfare cheese (aka government cheese), for the uninitiated, is cheese that is provided to recipients of welfare and/or other means-tested benefits. I first heard of it, and ate it, during the 1970’s and was mighty glad to get it. Welfare cheese makes awesome grilled cheese sandwiches. I know well what welfare cheese is, from personal hard luck life stories. But that doesn’t mean that everyone who looks like me knows what welfare cheese is from personal experience.

In fact, research shows that highly educated people, even of various racial or ethnic backgrounds, are disproportionately from the middle and upper middle classes or the wealthy classes. This is perhaps nowhere more true than among university faculty members. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education discussed the fact that few studies focus on working class or lower class students and faculty members. While there is some data regarding the economic class of students, apparently no comparable data exists for college faculties. I think that all too often, even well-educated people conflate race and ethnicity with social class, assuming that if, for instance, efforts have been made to bring in faculty members of color then by necessity this means that social class diversity has been achieved. This is, of course, not true, and has never, I think, been widely true. While programs offering greater access to education and other social goods over the last forty years have meant greater racial, ethnic and gender diversity in some workplaces, I might argue that some of the people from underrepresented groups who were helped by such programs were already middle class or very comfortably working class, and had been for a few generations.

Of course, such discussions raise the issue of just what it means to be middle class versus working class. For some people, working class means having parents or grandparents who didn’t have a summer home (seriously; someone shared that with me once.) For others, working class means rarely enjoying mainstream cultural events and knowing no one with a college degree, despite having consistent access to necessities such as food and shelter. Never mind what it means to belong to the poverty class. Poverty class means more than lacking some material comforts; it means lacking necessities and having a near absolute deficit of social capital. Social capital is the stuff that dreams (and educational attainment) are made of. Very few people in academia, it would seem, have ever belonged to the poverty class. This is due in no small part to the fact that access to advanced education takes a good deal more than a bright mind and hard work. It takes a startling array of economic and social resources, and these resources are frequently deployed from the time a person is born.

The discussion of social class in academia reminds me of the not unrelated discussion of the future of tenure in the academy. Some people see the tenure system as a hindrance to good institutional governance, since it is sometimes hard to compel tenured faculty members to embrace change. Others see tenure as necessary for insuring an independent minded, intellectually vibrant academy; faculty members who serve at the will of administrators would be little likely to engage in research or teaching that might offend established norms. Both sides have good points. But what often goes unaddressed in discussions of tenure among tenured faculty members themselves (who, not surprisingly, usually favor the tenure system) is the meritocratic assumptions about the nature of the institution. People who have tenure, or are on the tenure track, deserve those statuses, right? Serial adjuncts and faculty members on contracts often don’t have the same privileges, but if that’s true, it’s because people with tenure (or access to tenure) are smarter, work harder, and are just better, right?

Not right. While there are frequently well-articulated, reasonably objective standards for getting tenure (or for getting on the tenure track) what goes unexamined is the practical barriers to meeting the standards and most shamefully, the sometimes differential ways in which the standards are applied. Looking only at legal academia, it is noteworthy that a majority of persons who work as instructors but are not in tenure or tenure track jobs are women. One reason sometimes offered for this is that faculties often recruit nationally for tenure track jobs, and women are sometimes less able to move around easily to accept such jobs. That is true, yes. But all too often what starts out as a national search for tenured or tenure-track positions ends by settling on a local candidate who is, all too often, surprisingly like the majority of people already in place from a gender and racial perspective. There are other barriers as well. Even when women succeed in getting on the tenure track, they are, according to research, likely to have less prestigious jobs and earn less money than men with similar (and often lesser) credentials.

I could go on and on here about class, both inside and outside of academia. There is a lot to say; these are, after all, long-standing problems. Talking about class makes many people uneasy, since in many ways it raises a challenge to ideals of merit. All the more reason we should talk MORE about it, not less.


  1. This is a smart critique of educational access issues that could lend itself to book-length treatment, Prof. Inniss. And yes, I know a bit about "gubmint" cheese as well.

  2. Do you think the value placed on prestige and theory in academia (compared to practical/applied experience) could be discouraging to some people who are qualified to work in higher education?

  3. In response to anonymous:

    Good question. I think that there may be some well-qualified people who are discouraged from entering academia for the the reason you cite. But I think that the larger problem may be who gets to define "prestige" and "theory". There are many people whose work may be characterized as "practical" or "applied" but whose work is also framed or explained by highly sophisticated theories. But all too often, some types of work are written off as "too practical" and no one bothers to look more closely.

    This is also a good opportunity for me to say in response to some private commenters that I AM NOT opposed to the institution of tenure. I favor tenure. What I am opposed to is efforts to support tenure that fail to address (or even willfully suppress) some of its flaws, all in order not to "distract" from the main point. I think that people are smart enough to accept that institutions that are worthy of support may also be in need of remediation.

  4. That's a very good point about the connection between theory and applied work. I've always been interested in combining the two to reach goals that are relevant to larger parts of the public.