Friday, April 21, 2017

A First-Generation Academic

"First-Generation College Student" is a label proudly worn by many undergraduates at NIU. These students used to be the minority. But since the twentieth century's Civil Rights movement and resultant anti-discriminatory provisions ensured everyone a fair shot at education, and since increased government funding and loans enabled more and more students to eke out some tuition, students from all walks of life have flocked to universities and community colleges to do better than their parents did. As an instructor, I am aware of their unique challenges. And I am also aware of their unique advantages; they bring to the culture of the university a fresh outlook and a profound appreciation for the opportunity to learn.  However, their challenges sometimes outweigh their eagerness and talent, and many do not complete degrees.

While this is a big problem for first-generation students, it is an even bigger problem for first-generation academics.  Those of us who come in as first-generation, complete that bachelor's degree, and then stick around for more degrees... well, we are not only entering the realm of university life without much direction, we are entering a culture in which a very small percentage of Americans ever participate.  Academia is its own beast. So the stick-tuitive-ness that got us our bachelor's degrees is not necessarily enough to finish a masters thesis, and certainly not enough to push us through the drudgery that is Ph. D. work and dissertation writing. We need a special kind of help. But no one really knows what to do for us.
But...we're so alone!

Scores of extensive, longitudinal studies have been done on the first-generation college student. Those kids have been around for some time! But the first-generation academic is still a somewhat rare anomaly. Also, the amount of time it takes to produce one of us (years upon years of coursework, going back to school after taking breaks, part-time work while having kids, etc.) means the data just isn't there or hasn't been collected yet, that is, extensive data on who finishes, who achieves success in academia, and what kinds of services, attitudes, or funding, got them through all of it.  This is something that needs to be studied, both for the success of these students and for ensuring that the future fields of technology, education, health, and others, can benefit from an increasingly diverse pool of talents. 

Quite frankly, I think that first-generation academics are the key to revitalizing the stagnating university model. We can innovate how we do research in a budget crisis. We can engage with the community outside of academia and bring our discoveries to bear on the "real world." There, I said it. Academia needs us! Or it might just perish.  Nowhere is navel-gazing stronger than academia, a group that can cut itself off from the struggles of the world (and of their students) by living, working, and socializing among their university bubble. But this phenomenon of the academic enclave does not apply to blue-collar and low-income academics. I take offence when any blue-collar type tries to accuse me of being out of touch, just because I'm doing a Ph. D. ...Sorry, guy, I'm living in your "real world" every damn day. And I can also think abstractly! :D

While the studies are lacking, the stories are not. In fact, our Thesis Office Director, Carolyn Law, published a book entitled This Fine Place so Far from Home, a collection of personal accounts and essays from first-generation academics working in the 1990s.  The pieces range from opinionated, to irreverent, to poignant.  You can check it out here, at Temple University Press.

Think about it -- college is a defining experience for many people. But a decade of college and then a *life* at the university is, well, your entire life! When no one in your family or inner circle has any experience with college, let alone designing experiments and writing monographs, this can mean that not only is your college journey a lonely and confusing thing, but so is the life of the mind to which it leads you. Even the most supportive families can only offer hollow messages of encouragement -- they literally have no idea what we're doing.  Blue-collar scholars, like the ones in Law's book, speak of not being able to fit in anywhere -- afraid of being found out at the university, afraid of getting made fun of at home. (And of course, saddled with the debt of climbing out of the lower classes.) How do we address this? What can universities do to help us find a balance? And, perhaps more importantly, what can they do to ensure that our unique voices are not drowned out by the ideas of the privileged, established scholars?

Let us know in the comments of anything you've read on this. Or tell us about your experience!

Yours Truly,
Daughter of a Truck Driver, M.A.

1 comment:

  1. Really important issues and ideas you've raised. I think we need to discuss more openly the realities and challenges of the academic profession, and especially the cultural and structural challenges of those who don't fit the default identity--by class, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Thank you for reminding me about this; I will aim to bring these questions into my classes more.

    ReplyDelete