Kevin Taylor, professor of philosophy at the University of Memphis, grew up in central Illinois, outside academia. Although his parents never told him to expect money for college, both Taylor and his brother earned doctorates.
“We thought of ourselves as working class,” Taylor said. – Mom was in the restaurant business in the family, and dad was a grocer. I think it’s unusual for someone in my situation to go to college and very unusual to get a Ph.D.”
Taylor is not tenured, and he took out “loan after loan” for his doctoral program because no one advised him to actively seek funding. Although he’s found full-time employment in Memphis — eliminating the need to juggle classes at multiple facilities to scrape together enough income to survive — he says his full-time and full-time colleagues enjoy perks he doesn’t.
“I really feel a strong need to work on myself, to constantly prove myself and to do whatever a fellow incumbent does to get noticed, at the risk of my health and sanity,” Taylor said. “I can’t take vacations or travel because I have to save. My colleagues definitely rest and relax, travel and have disposable income for restaurants and entertainment. I’m not.”
Beyond that, Taylor doesn’t think his socioeconomic background has significantly disadvantaged him, but his experience raises questions about the pervasive divisions that exist in academia. Using data by zip code, a study published earlier this year found that the median household income of childhood professors was 23% higher — or about $14,000 — than the median income for all zip codes.
The study surveyed nearly 47,000 educators in eight different disciplines, including STEM, social sciences and humanities. Her findings show how parents pass on their socioeconomic status to their children, and raise concerns that higher education closes the class rather than promotes social mobility. It also found that one in five teachers boasted at least one parent with a Ph.D.
These results challenged the cherished concept of meritocracy in higher education.
The primary function of universities “is to create an idea of meritocracy in an increasingly unequal society,” said Walter Ben Michaels, professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
An effective merit-based system won’t necessarily mean fewer low-income people, Michaels said.
“It would simply mean that part of the wealthy elite comes from poverty rather than wealth,” he said. – Thus, the problem is stratification, first of all.”
According to Aaron Clauset, one of the study’s co-authors and a professor of computer science at the University of Colorado Boulder, the paper says about academia what previous studies have revealed about other high-profile professions, such as doctors and lawyers. A 2021 study, for example, found that medical students disproportionately come from high income backgrounds.
“We hold the principle of meritocracy very near and dear in the academic environment,” Clauset said. But the paper shows that “accumulated advantages” affect professor evaluations in ways “that appear to undermine the notion of an ideal meritocracy.”
Questions about what he studied and what he taught
The study’s findings raise concerns about knowledge production in academia, said Jenny Brand, one of the paper’s authors and a professor of sociology and statistics at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The relative paucity of scholars from less privileged backgrounds may mean a paucity of scholarship that would otherwise reflect diverse interests, values, and perspectives — and perhaps indicates a wealth of scholarship underpinned by a narrow set of experiences.
“At a place like UCLA, we have a very diverse student body, and not nearly as diverse in terms of faculty,” Brand said.
More tenured professors from low socioeconomic backgrounds could change the way research is conducted and discussed in colleges, Brand suggested.
Julie Park, an education professor at the University of Maryland, also argued that the scholarship could suffer from a lack of low-income teachers. She noted that in her field, there is a lot of focus on selective universities, rather than community colleges and open schools.
“Probably if we had a wider range of faculty, we could do more research at a wider range of institutions,” Park said.
Walter Metz is a professor of film studies at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. As a film and television scholar, he said, he has noticed that what is taught in graduate school in his field seems unrelated to what entertainment members of working-class families consume.
“If one doesn’t pay attention to the fact that people watch television to relax, one probably doesn’t fully consider how and why people use these media forms to keep the darkness out,” Metz said.
Class is also intertwined with race and gender in academia. The study authors did not comprehensively examine these intersections, but found that white professors were more likely to have parents with Ph.D. than black or Hispanic faculty.
Tommy Currie, professor of philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, said the classes undoubtedly affect academic performance, but he suspects these factors do not explain the discrimination and hostility faced by racial and ethnic minorities at the institution. He sees hostility extending to what is considered legitimate research and pedagogy.
Curry said that radical black scholarship and even unorthodox political and economic analysis are not seriously considered in the humanities and social sciences at most universities.
“Incorporating the experiences of the poor or homeless, much less the perspectives of black poor and working-class people from the Mississippi Delta region and northern urban centers, has done little to change how racism and economic deprivation are studied across disciplines,” Curry said. .
Making a difference in how people teach
Michaels of the University of Illinois at Chicago does not believe that diversifying the socio-economic backgrounds of faculty will solve the above problems. The paper’s authors provide no evidence that working-class professors will retain their prospects if they become tenured, he noted.
And he doubts whether changing who gets on the staff will have a significant impact on the scholarship.
“I think the exact opposite is just as plausible,” Michaels said.
He suggests focusing on changing the low-paying jobs with little security and autonomy that tend to be ancillary positions in academia. It highlights the potential role of organization and trade unions in changing the two-tier system.
“I think that political activism really affects how people will understand their work, and that can affect how they teach,” Michaels said, though he also rejected the idea that any change in pedagogic content could in and of itself correct the basis of socio-economic disparity.