How do we talk about (and through) our social class?

This week, we thought that it would be a good idea to discuss a topic that is less visible in our conversations about equity and social justice: social class. Higher education has been valorized as a way to equalize the playing field for people of all class backgrounds – but does it? We take time to unpack how classism manifests within higher education and how we can do better by our students, peers, and beyond when it comes to social class equity.

P.S. Throughout this set of tips, we use a variety of language to describe social class. This reflects the diversity of elements that constitute social class (and our collective difficulty with talking about it). Check out Bourdieu’s (1987) theoretical perspective or this short article by Lumen for more info.

Reflect: How do we talk about (and through) our social class?

Reflect on the last time you reacted to a student or colleague who didn’t use language traditionally expected within field. What did you think about that person? How did you respond? Yosso (2005) argued that language was one of the most visible aspects of social class, readable by almost anyone due to things like vocabulary and accents. Ardoin (2018) points out that language is often used to stereotype students (and faculty) by their socioeconomic background and those who deviate are shamed for not aligning with dominant academic expectations. Take a moment to reflect on how/when/where you developed your attitudes around “appropriate language”? How does this language mystify your field and create barriers for those who don’t know the hidden curriculum?

Learn: The Hidden Curriculum of Higher Education

The persistent disparity in graduation rates between first-generation students and students who are not the first in their family to attend college (Higher Education Research Institute, 2011; Pell Institute, 2011) is partially tied to higher education’s “hidden curriculum.” This curriculum operates as a series of unspoken rules and expectations that influence one’s success in higher education - ranging from the reasons for attending college to strategies for navigating university resources (Chang, 2018; Venit, 2016). For graduate students, the precarity of tuition remission and the stipend system poses a greater threat for students from lower socioeconomic (SES) backgrounds, which in turn affects well-being (Barry, 2019). Faculty with lower SES backgrounds want to support these students but often fear they perpetuate a “bootstraps” narrative, as being positioned as a role model might implicitly legitimize the “hidden curriculum” (Lee & Maynard, 2017). The effects of this hidden curriculum compound with barriers for other marginalized communities. Undergraduate women with lower SES backgrounds report a greater sense of social alienation than peers with higher SES backgrounds (Ostrove, 2003). The intersections of racism, sexism, and classism translate to microaggressions/stereotypes that place the burdens on Black graduate student women to prove their place, including perceptions that what little financial support they receive is a result of administrative policy rather than merit (Worthington, 2017).

Change: Recognizing Social Class

  • Make the “hidden curriculum” visible: Garriott (2020) emphasized that improving the navigational and personal capital of lower-class students is vital to improving their success, developing a model that offers a variety of strategies to reveal the “hidden curriculum.” Zinshteyn (2016) reported on a number of campuses that have taken on efforts to improve the success of first-generation students, many of which featured mentoring relationships with students. Another example is to structure advising and classroom conversations with references to resources (like office hours) as well as directions for how to successfully utilize these resources, free from shame.
  • Spot classist microaggressions: Because it’s so hard for many of us to clearly articulate what social class, classist microaggressions are very difficult to spot (Locke & Trolian, 2018; Smith, Mao, & Deshpande, 2016). Verbal microaggressions can look like making jokes about “rednecks,” describing students as “at risk” rather than identifying the barriers that create that “risk,” or using icebreakers in office meetings that are dependent on social class (e.g., “what did you do for the summer”). Implicit microaggressions can include requiring expensive classroom technology when less expensive/free technology exists or always choosing expensive restaurants for office outings. Consider how you can change the narrative by asking questions or by adjusting protocols in your office, classroom, and beyond.