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February 16, 2004


Chun the Unavoidable

This was a deligthful read. I'm a little unsure of the hot-for-theory = political leftism identity, though I can see how it'd be more applicable in classics.

I think a serious case could be made that being forced how to learn to read Greek and Latin in classics departments constitutes eurologophallocentrism.

Timothy Burke

I was just musing on my blog today about this issue, but this piece (a great read) adds another layer to the whole question. I wonder how much some of the bias being talked about in this whole meta-discussion is about a culture issue, e.g., the degree to which academia is quietly dominated by the children of the professional upper middle-class, and anyone outside of that is made to feel subtly weird and different and potentially "conservative".

Certainly I think this gets at some of what Erin O'Connor's correspondents are talking about when they get frustrated with the perceived hostility of literary criticism to loving literary or doing formalist criticism. (It's why I'm pleased to see Chun grooving on this essay: it's not *all* philistinism, you know. I grok why some people feel so confounded about why their motives for doing literary analysis don't seem to match up with what they encounter in grad school, and C. is a good case of that.)

Belle Waring

Wow, thanks Chun. I was curious to see what you'd have to say. In C.'s case there really was a big class issue in his prickly defensiveness and others feelings that he was weird somehow (as Timothy points out). As for the eurologophallocentrism, you've got us dead to rights there. I think my Greek prose composition exam example (and yes, that's one I actually took) pretty much proves that point. It's not rational to have a macho fixation on knowing that names of obscure agricultural implements in Greek and Latin. Too late for me though, because I already kick too much ass.

Chun the Unavoidable

The class issue is real, even in the hinterland research universities. I had to design a defixionum to curse certain enemies at one point.


That was a really interesting story. It's too bad that C. wasn't received better. Whether you agreed with him or not, at the very least he presented a different viewpoint that made other students (and profs for that matter) consider their own views in a more rigorous way. I thought that was what grad school was all about....

I think Tim is on to an important piece of the puzzle regarding class. As a non-upper middle class person who attend public school and state universities (and whose girlfriend's family is very upper class, Ivy League-types), and now works/studies at one of the Ivies, I can relate.

Timothy Burke

My wife has devoted a major portion of our relationship to educating me on this issue, because I was a huge freaking snob when I first met her, and she found that there was a real alignment with the kinds of assumptions I made and the dominant assumptions that our mutual undergraduate school made, which she, coming from a working-class background, did not have. I've seen it a lot since--working-class academics definitely can find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to many of the daily "performances of legitimacy" that help make someone seem at home with academic life.


I'm intrigued by this "blue-collar academics" thread; I'd like to hear more about other people's experiences. I come from a lower-income immigrant background--my mother was a waitress, my father sold furnace repairs; neither made it into high school, much less out--and I've wondered how much of my occasional sense of estrangement in academia derives from my political viewpoint (right of my profs'), and how much from my unfamiliarity with the silverware, so to speak. (And, of course, there's the estrangement that's endemic to graduate school no matter where you come from.)

I agree with the other posters, too; this was an excellent tale.

The Angry Clam

If C. also mounted a political campaign as a Republican in 2000 (I forget if it was for the legislature or the House) in Contra Costa County, then I had him as an instructor while an undergrad languages major (his story sounds really familiar).

It wasn't him that drove me to law school, but some of the other conservatives I knew (who, by the time I graduated, had clustered in the Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology Graduate Group) and the generally forlorn attitude they had about the direction of the field.

It's a pity too- I was pretty good. Then again, anyone who's had Threatte for more than two or three classes tends to be.

Belle Waring

I guess you know C.'s sekrit identity now, Mr. Clam -- if that *is* your name;). I agree that Leslie Threatte rules. He was my advisor for a long time, and Leslie Kurke was always like "what the hell are you doing?"

The Angry Clam

C taught me Latin 100 in my first semester at Cal.

Good guy. Couldn't have happened to a better person.

Leslie Kurke was also involved that semester. I was fortunate enough to have Classics 10A with her the year she decided to teach an "advanced" discussion section herself.

Unlike some other faculty I could mention, she was pretty normal. Then again, I liked even the obviously weird ones, so I'm probably not the best person to ask.

The Angry Clam

Just so you don't drive yourself too crazy wondering who I am, I think it's a one way knowing. You were one of the other TAs for a class I was in, I think (I want to say a class with Prof. McCarthy, but I could be wrong. Leslie Kurke's class was the other course I had that featured TAs, as opposed to graduate student taught courses). In any event, I'd heard your name at some point while I was in the department, although I doubt it was the other way around.

I don't think that we were ever on the same side of the classroom- I got to know more of the people from the Group than our department directly, as they had a higher tendancy to enroll in the upper level undergraduate reading courses.

You weren't in the (few) graduate courses I took, I can state that.


Based on a close look at a half-dozen or so instances, I'll testify that economic class differences in school far outweigh any influence that political differences might have. Liberal proles suffer in pretty much exactly the same way that conservative proles do, and their ideology is just as suspect.

Unironically citing "popular culture," insisting that political action and need differ from theoretical mindset, or testifying to awkward counterexamples -- for the more cultish sort of teacher, these all mark us as belonging at the bottom of the pecking order, reinforced (as far as fellow students as concerned) by any differences in diet, clothing, speech habits, and so on. If anything, our obstinate refusal to learn the game may be more provoking than a straightforward religious or party difference: both the academic left and the academic right find it easier to maintain coherence without us.

The "conservatives are treated badly" banner is emblazoned with the same species of red herring as the "poststructuralism is empty" banner. There are at least as many right-wing bullies as left-wing, and Critical Theory journals are no duller than New Critical ones.


I think there is a general assumption that smart people go to private/Ivy-esque colleges and if you go elsewhere its because you're not up to snuff. It's rarely considered that maybe you just couldn't afford to go to a non-state school or that your background didn't provide you with the necessary advantages, etc. And if you do go to the Ivy-esque college that you cut from the same cloth as the rest of the people there.

I'll post some of my experiences over at my (new) blog over the next day or two: http://culturaldetritus.blogspot.com/

Well, Tim, your wife must have done a good job because you seem exceptionally well-reasoned about academia (maybe that's cause I agree with a lot of what you say, but....)


Well, as a former classicist now a lawyer, I would guess that "C" now makes 5 to 10 times what a classics professor does, reads the Fourth Eclogue every Christmastime, and feels bemused contempt when he remembers his former grad school colleagues (and most of his professors).


Re: 'blue collar academics'; I'm from the north of England, the scion of a working-class family, and since I specialised in the 18th-century at Oxford, I felt pretty much far to the left, politically, of every one of my tutors.

But then again, my literary tastes were Tory rather than Whig (which sort of makes sense, since the Walpole-era Whigs remind me a lot of the Bush-era Republicans). Which got me noticed and appreciated, even if I felt like a cuckoo in the nest of Oxford academia.

Belle Waring

This comments thread reminds me that I said something so amazingly, embarassingly snobbish the other day (this is off the academic topic and more on a general class topic). I was discussing the movie Grosse Pointe Blank with a Japanese friend, and I explained that it took place in an "allegedly tony suburb in Michigan." My aunt started laughing at me, saying I was the reason people not from the east coast have chips on their shoulders about east coast snobbery. She pointed out that Grosse Pointe was probably one of the richest places in the US. Yeah, but it's IN MICHIGAN, I objected. There are plenty of rich people in mansionettes in Plano, Texas, too, but god knows it's not exactly tony. When she pointed out that my grandmother had a best friend from there (Grosse Pointe) I was somewhat mollified, but unconvinced. On reflection, I realized I was a jerk. Apparently, you can take the girl out of the Social Register, etc. Luckily for me, both my parents were black sheep of their families, and so I got to meet lots of bikers and drug dealers as a young person. Otherwise I wouldn't know anyone normal.

No Preference

I have been reading the Best Post citations for this year's Koufax Awards, and I think that this piece ranks with them.

I came from an Ivy League-educated family, and spent the first six years after high school working as a welder. Class differences are real in ways that have nothing to do with one's ostensible political alignment. I grit my teeth when I hear a fellow liberal Democrat refer to "trailer trash".

The Angry Clam

Further support for the "crustiest professor can be an unreconstructed communist," sort of.

More like very traditional New Deal Democrat who was also very proud of having voted repeatedly for Barbara Lee, and her vote against the "New Gulf of Tonkin Resolution," including making and placing a sign on his door.

He absolutely hated (and they, in turn, didn't think much of him) the direction of his Art History Department, which he saw as being far too theory obsessed and not nearly art-obsessed enough. I think it shows that it's not exactly political conservatism, but rather a sort of resistance to (post)modern academic trends that really gets one excluded. That the two have, at least in the popular mind, a correlation is a side issue.

Some of my favorite quotes:

"Art Historians are, by definition, idiots." (remember, he's an Art Historian).

"You see, I'm the only one left who teaches Art History. The rest just teach social theory."

Surveying a classroom with the desks in a circle: "I'm one of the few left who still show slides. The others just sit in a circle and hold hands."

"It was one of those exhibits where someone draws a black line on the wall around the room and calls it 'art.'"

David Foster

One of the reasons why public money is spent on higher education (in fairly large quantities) is that Americans have believed that it contributed to social mobility. Maybe this isn't true any more. Maybe the modern university is the most powerful engine of class snobbery to be found anywhere in America.


No, my experience is that publicly assisted higher education most certainly does contribute to social mobility. But there's no contradiction between that and the university being a place of class snobbery (or, to be less one-sided about it, disagreeable class awareness). Where else would friction be felt except at points of contact and movement?

Tim Kane

I have been teaching myself Latin for some years now. Too old for even grad school ... and too financially depended upon to even think of trying. I have attempted Greek ... and hope someday to return with more vigor (i.e., time) available.
I have found these ancient languages to be conducive to serious, reasoned argument. I have often thought that their re-introduction,done properly, into high school and college curricula would lead to more reasoned politics, etc.
How can people so fortunate to be steeped in these works fail to be more open-minded?
I don't mean to sound rhetorical; I am honestly amazed at how far we've fallen.
Good blog.
Good luck.
Tell C. I'd gladly pay him to tutor me and my children. (Now back to work for me so I can earn such keep.)

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