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Michelle Kaminski That's Why They Call It Work I am a working-class academic. My class background is an essential part of the work I do. But as a result, I often feel like an outsider—both in the academic world and among my working-class family members. What are my working-class credentials? My father, now retired, was a firefighter for over 30 years. Other family members were steelworkers, chemical workers, auto mechanics, clerks, nurses, and cashiers. Few in my generation went to college. I was the first to attend graduate school. And while my current work as a faculty member would place me solidly in the middle-class by most definitions, I still identify myself as a member of the working class. The reasons for this are both economic and cultural. On the economic front, I could see class differences between myself and my peers even in graduate school. I needed to work between half- and full-time to support myself. But some of my colleagues did not need to work; their families covered all their expenses. They could focus more intently on finishing their degrees. Coming from a working-class background, that level of financial support was simply notpossiblefor me. But I'm not sure it would havebeen offered even if my family had more money—children were expected to be financially independent by the age of 20 or so. If not, they were considered something of a failure and a burden to their parents. In my case, the financial insecurity of graduate school was followed at first by the insecurity of working at a think tank on soft money. After that, I took a tenure track position, and stillhave the psychological insecurity ofbeing a probationary employee for six years. By many definitions of class, I would be considered middle class. Both my income and the type of work I do (whether one looks at my relationship to the means of production or my socio-economic status) fall within traditional definitions of middle class. But I don't feel middle-class. Because I spent years living on a low income while I earned my degree (and acquiring debtin the process), I do not have the store of wealth that many middleclass people my age have. So my experience makes me more empathetic with the economic insecurity of working-class life, in which a factory that leaves town or a job-related illness or injury can devastate a family's economic well-being. While economically I identify with the working class, my cultural identity is harder to categorize. My class background and my educational experiences both shaped my cultural values. While in graduate school, I worked in a variety of academic departments: psychology, organizationalbehavior, occupational health, and industrial relations. As I worked in those fields, I discovered that I often felt ill-at-ease with middle- and upper-class man- 150 the minnesota review agers who came to our executive education classes, or whom I met while conducting research projects in various corporations. Sometimes it was as simple as not knowing what counted as suitable small talk. (I soon learned that a round robin of travel horror stories was often popular.) A more important cultural gap was my discomfort with corporate values, coupled with the managers' assumption that, of course, everyone believed in the virtues of private enterprise. I once heard one of my professors say, "If it made money, it must have been the right decision." This was such a sharp contrast with the reasons why I chose to attend graduate school that I knew that I could not continue to work with him. I grew up as a witness to the social and psychological impact of industrial restructuring. My hometown, Buffalo, NY, has lost thousands and thousands of solid, working-class jobs in steel mills and auto factories. The story is a familiar one. Companies say that wages are toohigh and they cannotbe competitive. Plants close. More plants close. Displaced older workers don't have the skills for newer, high-tech jobs. But the generation that came of age when I did, in the 1980s, also had limited prospects. Those who hoped to have jobs...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2157-4189
Print ISSN
0026-5667
Pages
pp. 149-155
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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