Dismissing Class

Back on campus, our linked sections of “In Class/OutClassed” are designing a workshop to reach out to our own community. We craft this invitation:

As part of the Bryn Mawr Class Dismissed Initiative we would like to invite you to participate in our workshop on Friday November 11th from 2:00pm-3:15pm in Rhoads Dining Hall; the workshop is titled Mapping Out Class. The Class Dismissed Initiative is an attempt to increase conversations about socioeconomic class on Bryn Mawr’s campus as a result of a campus survey that revealed that class differences on campus are the most likely to produce feelings of exclusion among students, faculty and staff. 

The Mapping Out Class workshop will be an opportunity to have an open discussion on campus about an issue that is seldom talked about, but that is very present on our campus: socioeconomic class. In which spaces do we feel comfortable? How are class differences displayed on campus? Why do we feel excluded? We look forward to exploring this topic with a diverse group of students, faculty and staff and we want YOU to help us do it. In the workshop we will also look for ways to move forward and to envision a better Bryn Mawr. What can we do as individuals and as an institution to ease class tensions on campus?

Our class brainstorms an outreach strategy: students will invite people they know and want to know across constituencies of the college, in hopes of parlaying this event into a “diverse group of students, faculty and staff.” Some who work in dining halls will invite co-workers; others look forward to inviting their housekeepers, with whom they feel a particular connection.

Although it’s often a challenge to get folks out to events such as this, responses begin to come in, and–with excitement—we sense a mounting interest. But then first one, then another and another of our students report that members of the housekeeping and dining services staff have declined their invitations. Several students describe “a gate coming down” between them and those they thought they’d befriended. We problem-solve, meeting with the head of staff, who writes a memo excusing employees to attend our workshop during working hours. Still, only one housekeeper comes, a part-time student who has been in my class.

Even so, we pull off a highly successful event: well attended and taken up, with participants generating insightful critique and thinking toward next steps. Suggestions range from the clear, dry “Acknowledge me when I’m serving you–I go to this school too,” to the acerbic “You have to get your…income tattooed on your forehead.” There are specific recommendations:

  • Please change international student orientation. Do not make students on financial aid stand up in front of others so that they must leave to go to a special financial aid session, when “wealthy” don’t have to go to the session.
  • [Talk] about issues from the beginning of each students’ journey here–so all students are more aware and educated of the assumptions and prejudices we bring to campus and discuss how we can more forward together.
  • Equalize the pay scale [for student jobs].

Many acknowledge the importance of discussions like this one, which “de-stigmatize the sort of class distinctions that dominate—unconsciously–the social imagining here at BMC,” and help us “teach each other with no judgment.” Yet absences speak loudly:

  • I know this is the first year that class is really being talked about but I think the discussion needs to be integrated into the school’s curriculum. Somehow, everyone needs to be forced to confront these issues because no matter how many optional conversations there are, the people who need to be there probably won’t be.
  • Respect for all levels of staff, especially such as dining, housekeeping, facilities. The folks who really keep the place going.
  • More areas of interaction between faculty and (different levels of) staff. Allowing technical/clerical/utility staff to participate in community dialogue without fear of being fired. Allow staff on all levels to collaborate and get to know each other.

On-line, then in class, we debrief the workshop, highlighting both dialogues that happened and those that didn’t:

Rae Hamilton

I invited people that I had constant disagreements/fights because of class. My original idea was for them to go to the workshop and maybe see might point of view better, yet I actually was one who learned a lot.1

lissiem

Participating in the workshop was very challenging for me. It was very uncomfortable, but that’s why we’ve having workshops like this in the first place!2

S. Yaeger

In many ways, the absence of housekeepers and landscapers from the workshop highlighted one of the difficulties in starting a discussion of this nature on campus. No matter how hard we work to be inclusive, there may always be a barrier between those in privileged positions, and those who are in positions of support. I wonder how we can bridge that barrier.3

These comments name a space of contradiction. Students note that we could have gotten the word out to staff members more effectively—made it clear that they could get released from work to attend–but also index tensions among staff members, acknowledge that “something else is going on with housekeeping”: Staff members worry that they may lose their jobs or promotions if they speak out; the “head person is mean to them”; if they “step out of line,” it would not be a “positive addition to their environment”; “you can attend but still have to get your work done”; “you don’t know how catty people can be.” Differences in age as well as class are signaled here.

Our group struggles not to deny complicity, to stay engaged. To understand these structures that classify and divide us, especially tricky since the work of the housekeeping staff overlaps with the work of mothers and with service work designed to be unobtrusive, effaced.Our group struggles not to deny complicity, to stay engaged. To understand these structures that classify and divide us, especially tricky since the work of the housekeeping staff overlaps with the work of mothers and with service work designed to be unobtrusive, effaced.4 A student reflects that if we invited support staff to other less formal events, like teas in dorms, this kind of invite wouldn’t seem like such a big deal. Our position as faculty also occludes our vision: we might have extended our invitation through their organization, the Staff Association.

By inviting support staff to a campus dialogue, we presume shared community; by overlooking the unequal distribution, status, and visibility of labor, we inadvertently reproduce inequity. It is not only that the housekeepers’ absence from our on-campus dialogue is, in part, what constitutes the experience of being served, as a member of the intellectual elite, by others. It is also that the positions of college students and housekeepers are interlocked, as luxury of study for the former is enabled by the work of the latter. M. Carey Thomas’s vision still haunts, as the intimate, gendered connections between students and housekeepers discourage investigation of the very power relations we’d hoped to discuss.

Our student consultants join us in telling college administrators what we learned and what we suggest for moving forward:

We had 70 some attendees; 3 were support staff. Inviting folks to “come have a conversation” generated a definite class-based response; many support staff are not comfortable w/ that sort of set-up.

The notice to supervisors–to allow folks to take time to come–did not find its way to many (any?) staff members themselves. Housekeepers and other staff members said that their jobs could be jeopardized by their speaking out. And several housekeepers said that they “had nothing to say.” Should we have framed our invitation differently-and-less-explicitly?

Could “next steps” in this conversation include staging discussions among particular groups (folks in dining services, housekeeping, etc.) who would then “send some representatives” to a larger cross-campus conversation? and “speak for” their constituent group? When people are on campus, they are professionals, representing the college. They have to consider what it means to be in their position and when honesty may put them in an awkward professional position. 

If this workshop was truly valued, why wasn’t it funded and advertised like [the semester’s big event, a series of talks by] Judith Butler? How important is this Class Dismissed initiative?

In our report, we admit that our class was taken by surprise by the barriers to investigating class across constituencies on campus: the quiet, implacable structuring of roles in which only some of us are safely (and dangerously?) ensconced in positions of power. Our surprise is not so surprising: With the exception of living wage campaigns, the class divide on U.S. college campuses has been largely ignored. Alice Lesnick offers a sharp analysis of why this might be: that the very structure of educational systems teaches ranking, and so elucidates the staying power of these divisions: “education at all levels too often amounts to teaching students to divide the world…by ranking different traditions, forms of work, and people. These lessons are not always the product of instruction; they result from the social organization of work.”the very structure of educational systems teaches ranking, and so elucidates the staying power of these divisions: “education at all levels too often amounts to teaching students to divide the world…by ranking different traditions, forms of work, and people. These lessons are not always the product of instruction; they result from the social organization of work.”5

Our workshop and report–like other Classed Dismissed projects–are well received, with a reception at the president’s house, upbeat coverage on college media, promises that this is a beginning. Some efforts follow: the college becomes test optional, a strategy that tends to increase applications from lower-income students; an Admissions officer pilots a cohort model to recruit small groups of lower-income students of color; “diversity conversations” continue to explore dimensions of identity including class.

Tensions and inequities remain, as investigated by first-year students in later writing seminars we offer; and much more extensively in the college’s recent Community Day of Learning, “In/Visible: Class on Campus, Class in our Lives,”6 where a day of workshops for all constituencies on campus includes sessions that cut broadly, others concentrating on the college, others on personal demeanor (“knowing the right things, carrying yourself in certain ways”).

A century after Thomas articulated her vision of luxury and scholarship for select women, the Dean of the Undergraduate College, Karen Tidmarsh confirms that a Bryn Mawr education “requires solitude, quiet, freedom from everyday responsibilities”—in order “to train a new elite, an elite that will change the world.7 This twist, in which the scholar becomes the world-changer, doesn’t sit well. When I send a draft of this chapter to Anne, she writes into this discomfort:

It’s a gray and rainy day. I couldn’t be more comfortable, sitting in a big soft chair, in a beautifully paneled room at the back of our farmhouse, reviewing the draft of a chapter about “encountering class” that Jody’s just sent me.

Rhoda Coffelt, who is cleaning here today, asks me if I can move into Jeff’s study.

So she can clean mine.

This is less a ghost than an insistent presence. One that I rely on, in order to do my work. That unsettles me.

The word “school” is from the Greek “skhole” for “leisure.” We begin to account, here, for some of the relationships that make that leisure possible.

It’s unsettling, too, to realize that investigating class division on campus becomes a priority only when fissures among some of our students and the women who cleaned their dorms are revealed by our efforts to be “inclusive.” Even that language presumes the possibility of completeness, and, as Martha Minow points out, suggests that we know the ways of working with difference that are best for everyone.8 It also presumes straightforwardness–shared language and interests, equity of democratic structures–embedded in unstable social states. Teachers and students must disorient our gaze, reimagining with others across a spectrum on campus what it might mean to re-design life for-and-with the whole college community. A different kind of dialogue is needed, one that questions the economic underpinnings of the college, and begins to imagine other landscapes into being.

As Gordon points out, even when hidden in plain sight, people can “achieve a measure of agency and possibility…refusing to be treated as if one was…fated to a life of…spectrality” (Gordon, “Some Thoughts,” 15). Following her here, we can read the decision of support staff not to attend our workshop less as absence than as agency, a choice about priorities, a refusal of our terms; a claim for approaches that differ from ours.

Classed admissions and classed arrangements on campus work hand in hand to fortify larger structures, as “selective” colleges cultivate greater access to power for the few, situating others outside of and in service to. Anne’s and my own ambiguous location as continuing non-tenure track faculty comes into play here: we are both less vulnerable–in positions of some power vis a vis both staff and students—and more so–neither adjunct to nor on the academic hierarchy, shadows of “professors.” Our positioning nudges us to question a “system that…limits our ability to find each other, to see beyond it and to access the places that we know lie outside its walls.”9 As we press our students and ourselves to encounter classed experiences and structural inequities, we work the tension between interrogating the system, and a yearning toward membership in it.As we press our students and ourselves to encounter classed experiences and structural inequities, we work the tension between interrogating the system, and a yearning toward membership in it.

  1. Rae Hamilton, “The Workshop,” November 15, 2011 (3:52 a.m.), accessed April 8, 2016.
  2. lissiem, “Workshop,” November 13, 2011 (10:47 p.m.), accessed April 8, 2016.
  3. S. Yaeger, “Some Thoughts on Our Workshop,” November 13, 2011 (3:55 p.m.), accessed April 8, 2016.
  4. Bettie, 198.
  5. Alice Lesnick, “Teaching and Learning in Community: Staff-Student Learning Partnerships As Part of a College Education,” Journal of Community Engagement and Scholarship 3 (2012), accessed April 8, 2016.
  6. Emily Wells and Emily Schalk, “2016 Community Day of Learning Examines Issues of Class,” February 25, 2016 (2:38 p.m.), accessed April 7, 2016.
  7. Karen Tidmarsh, “The Highly Practical Liberal Arts,” Bryn Mawr Now XXVI (Spring/Summer 1997): 7, italics added.
  8. Martha Minow, Making All the Difference: Inclusion, Exclusion, and American Law (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1990).
  9. Jack Halberstam, “The Wild Beyond: With and for the Undercommons,” in Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Brooklyn, New York: Minor Compositions, 2013), 6, accessed April 7, 2016.