March 27th 2024

“You’re not working class anymore” – Following the yellow brick road of first year

Beth Meadows, PhD Researcher

For many years Dorothy dreamed of somewhere over the rainbow. It was a world she couldn’t relate to from her humble Kansas farm. But, when presented with the opportunity to access this new world in all its mystical glory, there were some unexpected moments in finding her way. For the next 10 minutes, I’m gonna take you along the yellow brick road I have been following for the first year of my PhD and reflect on that journey through a classed lens.  

Dorothy ultimately takes the journey alone (sorry, Toto, but I don’t actually have a pet just now so you’re not making the cut) but is joined by many characters along the way. A lot of them support her, some scare her, and one even tries to kill her! (For legal reasons I must point out that’s not my lived experience…yet).

Firstly, she meets Glinda, aka the Good Witch, who I like to see as my wonderful Supervisory Team. Appearing in a beautiful bubble from the sky to give assurance and guidance to Dorothy that she is in fact in the correct building and did get onto this PhD despite being the first person in her family to go to university. But Dorothy is initially perplexed by the immediate questioning of whether she’s a good or bad witch, as if it’s the most obvious question in the world that she ought to know the answer to right away. She fumbles, and answers… that she’s not a witch at all? Not too dissimilar then to the fear inducing ‘so, what direction do you want to take this PhD in?’ or even ‘what’s your ontology?’ line of questioning…

She is then sent along a journey armed with her shiny protective red slippers, aka the Web of Science combination search function, in a direction of the yellow brick road to find Mr Oz. Or, in other words, she’s sent away for 6 months ‘to read’ to find a set of research questions. Emerald city is foreign to her: it’s very exciting and yet overwhelming. She doesn’t quite fit in with everyone else as she hasn’t been running in these circles very long at all. Her accent sort of sticks out too especially at conferences in cities called London. She recognises the cultural class competency in others, the kind that’s fostered around middle-class dinner tables, that not all working class people have access to as they are making their own tea because their mum is working late. Dorothy, I feel you girl. I notice myself code switching with this, and having to proactively remind myself that while accents most often are our class indicators, it’s NOT MY PROBLEM if people struggle to digest mine.

The second character Dorothy meets is the Scarecrow, who is actually a reflection of Dorothy herself, MGM just didn’t think the public was ready for that meaning to be made explicit. Much like Scarecrow-Dorothy, I have spent a fair amount of this past year feeling a little lost, and at points, wondering if it would be made easier if I only had a brain that could understand how to do a systematic review. It is actually just good old imposter syndrome speaking, somewhat magnified by a classed conditioning that you can never work hard enough. And to dare complain about not having enough to do! How very ungrateful. As I am only in my first year, and honestly by this point ran out of Wizard of Oz based bandwidth, let’s say that the Tin Man’s search for a heart represents second year, and the Lion’s for courage aptly reflects third year.

Dorothy has to repeatedly ask various people for help on how to get back home. The knowledge was sort of gatekept from her then, you might say. There’s a fair amount of assumed knowledge here too and it can feel a little disempowering. And when you haven’t been raised to feel comfortable or confident in asking for clarification from people with more power than you, and certainly not to ask for more, it can be tough to navigate. This is all accentuated by being a woman of course too. And it’s even worse for people of colour. It’s a bit like when Dorothy realises that the Wizard of Oz is just a regular guy behind a curtain and there’s that feeling of, oh, right, these academics are all just people too then I guess, and most are actually sound. It’s the system built around them, and us as a part of said system, one full of signifiers of prestige like ‘titles’, one essentially designed to make working-class people feel like outsiders and not good enough…it’s that system which makes us feel what we feel. And good people can, even unconsciously, reinforce a system.

Although not a key plotline of the film, for the purposes of this storytime it’s important to point out that all Dorothy has with her are the clothes on her back. Unless that basket was full of identical gingham pinafores. While I have much more than that, and it would be wrong to pretend otherwise, being from a working-class background comes with a material reality of a lack of financial safety net for when things go awry. This can cause a sort of baseline level of stress, although one that I’m well accustomed to after adopting the ‘being skint is a state of mind’ mantra from my Mum. But it does mean that extra-careful consideration of how to make the stipend last, and ultimately, taking on more work being essential rather than optional.

Ultimately Dorothy escapes by saying ‘there’s no place like home’, but as many working-class researchers I’m sure will know, once you leave home to do something like go to university, home isn’t always the same place to return to. Especially if you’re the first in your family to go to uni like me. Herein lies a point of departure from The Wizard of Oz story. In the eyes of my Kansas community, which is incidentally a town called Leigh, sure I am impressive, but an eternal student despite having worked for many years, and no one is quite sure what I do or how I do it. I’m always so welcome, but not necessarily always understood. So, you have to carve out space you do fit into within this new Emerald City so it does feel like home. It’s a journey we are all on to varying degrees, pun intended. I’m still unsure if this is my career home, but it’s where I live right now and it’s an exciting place to be as I believe in my research as much as Dorothy believes in returning to her beloved Kansas.

But, it’s important to note it’s absolutely not all cynical in this rewrite. I have met other working-class researchers along the yellow brick road which helps as knowledge brokering of the industry, and affirms that we are by no means alone. There’s working class academic networks too. And so many experiences are positive, it would be offensive to reproduce the notion that working-class lives are defined by struggle and suffering. Honestly, a big part of why I chose to do this PhD is because I felt determined to just be a woman from a working-class background like mine in an elitist space like the academy, trying to affect change from the inside I suppose – an ‘outsider within’ as Patricia Hills Collins theorised. Which makes the chance to speak to you like today feel an important moment, to be talking in a pretty non-academic way within an academic space about experiences of class. Judith Butler conceptualised in relation to Queer experiences that ‘moments of possibility’ exist within structures of power, to carve out those pockets of space for community, for empowerment, for liberation etc. I choose to frame today as a small ‘moment of possibility’.


Now to bring this fairy-tale to a close. The title of this reflective session was inspired by a real-life quote from a real-life academic who shall remain nameless – they said to me when I entered the profession as a RA some years ago “you’re not working class anymore, Beth, now you’re an academic”. Yes, culturally I am not AS working class as my background and upbringing, and I totally accept that. Class is a complicated identity marker to say the least due to its range and malleability. But, hopefully as this short reflection has demonstrated, being working-class isn’t something that ever leaves you entirely. The conditioning, the imposter syndrome, the material lack of a financial safety net, the conversations you have no reference point on, being uncomfortable or outrightly offended by people’s class ignorance, the cultural capital you have to gain rather than be given, the home and people you leave behind and the complicated emotions that come with that…and, the sort of indescribable gut feeling that you’re not nor will ever be ‘one of them’ – you carry that still. You carry that always. The End. 

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