On being a first-generation student

First off: the following is not to be taken as a tale of woe. I am grateful for whatever life has had on offer for me so far, and I am indebted to my teachers – from primary school to university and beyond – in many ways. But I felt that, given that Martin invited me to do so, I should probably provide some context to my comment on his recent post on meritocracy, in which I claimed that my being a first-generation student has had a “profound influence on how I conceive of academia”. So here goes.

I am a first-generation student from a lower-middle-class family. My grandparents on the maternal side owned and operated a small farm, my grandfather on the paternal side worked in a foundry, and his wife – my father’s mother – did off-the-books work as a cleaning woman in order to make ends meet.

When I got my first job as a lecturer in philosophy my monthly income already exceeded that of my mother, who has worked a full-time job in a hospital for more than thirty years. My father, a bricklayer by training, is by now divorced from my mother and declutters homes for a living. Sometimes he calls me in order to tell me about a particularly good bargain he stroke on the flea market.

My parents did not save money for my education. As an undergraduate I was lucky to receive close to the maximum amount of financial assistance afforded by the German Federal Law on Support in Education (BAföG) – still, I had to work in order to be able to fully support myself (tuition fees, which had just been introduced when I began my studies, did not help). At the worst time, I juggled three jobs on the side. I have work experience as a call center agent (bad), cleaning woman (not as bad), fitness club receptionist (strange), private tutor (okay), and teaching assistant (by far the nicest experience).

Not every middle-class family is the same, of course. Nor is every family in which both parents are non-academics. Here is one way in which the latter differ: There are those parents who encourage – or, sometimes, push – their children to do better than themselves, who emphasize the value of higher education, who make sure their children acquire certain skills that are tied to a particular habitus (like playing the piano), who provide age-appropriate books and art experiences. My parents were not like that. “Doing well”, especially for my father, meant having a secure and “down-to-earth” job, ideally for a lifetime. For a boy, this would have been a craft. Girls, ostensibly being less well-suited for handiwork, should strive for a desk job – or aim “to be provided for”. My father had strong reservations about my going to grammar school, even though I did well in primary school and despite my teacher’s unambiguous recommendation. I think it never occurred to him that I could want to attend university – academia was a world too far removed from his own to even consider that possibility.

I think that my upbringing has shaped – and shapes – my experience of academia in many ways. Some of these I consider good, others I have considered stifling at times. And some might even be loosely related to Martin’s blogpost about meritocracy. Let me mention a few points (much of what follows is not news, and has been put more eloquently by others):

  • Estrangement. An awareness of the ways in which the experiences of my childhood and youth, my interests and preferences, my habits and skills differ from what I consider a prototypical academic philosopher – and I concede that my picture of said prototype might be somewhat exaggerated – has often made me feel “not quite at home” in academia. At the same time, my “professional advancement” has been accompanied by a growing estrangement from my family. This is something that, to my knowledge, many first-generation students testify to, and which can be painful at times. My day-to-day life does not have much in common with my parents’ life, my struggles (Will this or that paper ever get published?) must seem alien, if not ridiculous, to them. They have no clear idea of what it is that I do, other than that it consists of a lot of desk-sitting, reading, and typing. And I think it is hard for them to understand why anyone would even want to do something like this. One thing I am pretty sure of is that academia is, indeed, or in one sense at least, a comparatively cozy bubble. And while I deem it admirable to think of ways of how to engage more with the public, I am often unsure about how much of what we actually do can be made intelligible to “the folk”, or justified in the face of crushing real-world problems.
  • Empathy. One reason why I am grateful for my experiences is that they help me empathize with my students, especially those who seem to be afflicted by some kind of hardship – or so I think. I believe that I am a reasonably good and well-liked teacher, and I think that part of what makes my teaching good is precisely this: empathy. Also, I believe that my experiences are responsible for a heightened sensibility to mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion, and privilege. I know that – being white, having grown up in a relatively secure small town, being blessed with resilience and a certain kind of stubbornness, and so on – I am still very well-off. And I do not want to pretend that I know what it is like to come from real poverty, or how it feels to be a victim of racism or constant harassment. But I hope that I am reasonably open to others’ stories about these kinds of things.
  • Authority. In my family of origin, the prevailing attitude towards intellectuals was a strange mixture between contempt and reverence. Both sentiments were probably due to a sense of disparity: intellectuals seemed to belong to a kind of people quite different from ourselves. This attitude has, I believe, shaped how I perceived of my teachers when I was a philosophy student. I noticed that our lecturers invited us – me – to engage with them “on equal terms”, but I could not bring myself to do so. I had a clear sense of hierarchy; to me, my teachers were authorities. I did eventually manage to speak up in class, but I often felt at a loss for words outside of the classroom setting with its relatively fixed and easily discernable rules. I also struggled with finding my voice in class papers, with taking up and defending a certain position. I realize that this struggle is probably not unique to first-generation students, or to students from lower-class or lower-middle-class backgrounds, or to students whose parents are immigrants, et cetera – but I believe that the struggle is often aggravated by backgrounds like these. As teachers, I think, we should pay close attention to the different needs our students might have regarding how we engage with them. It should go without saying, but if someone seems shy or reserved, don’t try to push them into a friendly and casual conversation about the model of femininity and its relation to sexuality in the novel you recently read.
  • Merit. Now, how does all this relate to the idea of meritocracy? I think there is a lot to say about meritocracy, much more than can possibly be covered in a (somewhat rambling) blogpost. But let me try to point out at least one aspect. Martin loosely characterizes the belief in meritocracy as the belief that “if you’re good or trying hard enough, you’ll get where you want”. But what does “being good enough” or “trying hard enough” amount to in the first place? Are two students who write equally good term papers working equally hard? What if one of them has two children to care for while the other one still lives with and is supported by her parents? What if one struggles with depression while the other does not? What if one comes equipped with “cultural capital” and a sense of entitlement, while the other feels undeserving and stupid? I am not sure about how to answer these questions. But one thing that has always bothered me is talk of students being “smart” or “not so smart”. Much has been written about this already. And yet, some people still talk that way. Many of the students I teach struggle with writing scientific prose, many of them struggle with understanding the assigned readings, many of them struggle with the task of “making up their own minds” or “finding their voice”. And while I agree that those who do not struggle, or who do not struggle as much, should, of course, be encouraged and supported – I sometimes think that the struggling students might be the ones who benefit the most from our teaching philosophy, and for whom our dedication and encouragement might really make a much-needed difference. It certainly did so for me.

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