This week, we thought that it would be a good idea to discuss a topic that is less visible in conversations about equity and social justice: social class. Higher education has historically excluded the working class, but has been valorized more recently as equalizing the playing field for people of all class backgrounds – but has it really? We unpack how classism still manifests within higher education and how we can do better when it comes to social class equity. Throughout this set of tips, we use a variety of language to describe social class reflecting the diversity of elements constituting social class (and our collective difficulty discussing it). Check out Bourdieu’s (1987) theoretical perspective or this Lumen article 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? Language is one of the most visible aspects of social class, readable by almost anyone due to things like vocabulary and accents.1 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.2 Take a moment to reflect on how/when/where you developed your attitudes around “appropriate language”? How do attitudes about language/jargon 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 college3, 4 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.5, 6 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.7 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.”8 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.9 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.10
- Discussion Questions: Consider the following questions with those in your community. Where do you “see” social class most readily around you? What lingering stereotypes might you have about social class? In what ways do(n’t) you account for people of different social classes? How can you be more inclusive of people who don’t have the same social class background as you?
- Make the “hidden curriculum” visible: 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.”11 Several campuses have undertaken efforts to improve the success of first-generation students,12 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. Consider your navigational capital and awareness of university processes; how you can make these clearer to all?
- Spot classist microaggressions: Because it’s so hard for many of us to clearly articulate what social class is, classist microaggressions are very difficult to spot.13, 14 Verbal microaggressions can sound 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 adjusting protocols in your office, classroom, and beyond.
Additional Resource Recommendations
- Book:A Field Guide to Grad School: Uncovering the Hidden Curriculum - Dr. Calarco wrote this book to help graduates navigate graduate school’s hidden curriculum (and can help faculty address the hidden curriculum of graduate school).
- Video:Social Class and Student Affairs – This Higher Ed Live video features scholars on social class in higher education as they use the narrative of students, faculty, and administrators of lower-class backgrounds to discuss social class in higher education and ways to address it.
- Article:Supporting Working Class Students in Higher Education – Soria and Bultmann discuss the sense of belonging, climate, and engagement of working-class students in higher education.
- Podcast:Med Legs – This podcast shares narratives of low income and first-generation medical students, providing strategies for navigating the hidden curriculum of medical school. Many of the conversations align with other graduate student experiences.
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