Institutional Hauntings

The first woman president of Harvard University, Drew Faust, was raised among very different ghosts, the landed gentry in Virginia. Counseled by her mother that “It’s a man’s world, sweetie,” Faust reports arriving at Bryn Mawr in 1964: “I will never forget Miss McBride up on the stage telling us to be humble in the face of Our Work. I had not before realized that I had Work.…But Miss McBride’s address instilled in me a newfound reverence for learning and scholarship.”1

A century earlier, the second president of Bryn Mawr, M. Cary Thomas had developed a formative vision for the college, as a place where young, White, Christian, well-to-do “ladies” like Faust, often from prominent families, would be given the rare opportunity to become serious scholars of the classics, science, art history. Others would wait on them while they nurtured their intellects and prepared to become formidable and influential leaders in a male-dominated world. A lover of exquisite things who displayed her wealth extravagantly on the campus where she lived with women partners, Thomas was visionary about the rights of White women, yet profoundly elitist and racist: a highly vocal and influential supremacist and eugenicist whose fierce opposition to class-and-race equity also infused her vision of the college.A lover of exquisite things who displayed her wealth extravagantly on the campus where she lived with women partners, Thomas was visionary about the rights of White women, yet profoundly elitist and racist: a highly vocal and influential supremacist and eugenicist whose fierce opposition to class-and-race equity also infused her vision of the college.  Specters of this vision still lace through shadows, blossom across the green expanses of this place.

Bryn Mawr alumna and historian Grace Pusey explains how inequities embedded in the college’s history leave a profound legacy:

Having an all-Black and predominantly female domestic staff served to reinforce and amplify students’ status-markers of wealth and whiteness, and even Thomas’ successors found that recruiting students from elite white families…and subsequently catering to their prejudices (and their expectations for a certain kind of lifestyle, sustained by Black women’s domestic labor), proved essential to securing and maintaining the College’s financial stability.2

Current support staff tread in the steps of others, whose labor and invisibility were thought necessary for an institution championing women’s scholarship.

Now some students-–more diverse by class, race, language, geography-–call out these ghosts, underbelly of inclusion requiring exclusion; students and some faculty and staff speak the desire to change this place, to be in and of it.

The “Survey Highlights” of the 2009 Bryn Mawr Campus Climate Assessment reveal that “in the aggregate, social class is the category of identity that most clearly demarcates variation in the experience of Bryn Mawr’s campus climate (particularly among undergraduate students and non-faculty staff).” Class shows up as most “problematic” in terms of a sense of “belonging,” “a need to minimize or conceal characteristics,” and the presence of “disparaging or stereotyping jokes or comments”3.

In 2011 the college launches a yearlong, campus-wide initiative, Class Dismissed? Furthering the Dialogue about Class. 4 That summer first-year students are assigned Class Matters, a collection of New York Times articles purporting to analyze the “indistinct, ambiguous…half-seen hand that…holds some Americans down while giving others a boost.”5 In September, and again as fall turns cold, the students in Anne’s and my classes on class complain that they’ve done the reading, but the college has “done nothing” with it.

Not entirely true. Six collaborative projects are selected by the Diversity Leadership Group and Diversity Council to “spark dialogue on the topic of class.” Three will collect stories and generate dialogues, one relate stories to policy issues, another produce a documentary on staff and faculty contributions to the college. Our seminars will host a campus dialogue.6

Early in our seminars, students track stories that are less collectible: one follows a trail to her attic dorm room, reputedly haunted by a housekeeper who once lived there; others pursue traces in dorm “smokers” where students studied and talked while served by others; in the bell-tower where seniors announce completion of their work.

The topic haunts, at this college where first-year students are suddenly “unclassed” by eating and living in spaces designed by and for well-to-do White women, “reclassed” by eating in restaurants rather than dining halls, by clothes on bodies and in closets, by décor on their walls and words in their mouths. As political analyst Sam Fulwood suggests, college education–long touted as an equalizer–may operate more as a billboard advertising, even exacerbating class differences.7

Early on, when Anne and I ask our students to “map your access to education,” their very different trajectories to Bryn Mawr become visible: some with many, sturdy legs up, others with fewer, more tenuous supports.Early on, when Anne and I ask our students to “map your access to education,” their very different trajectories to Bryn Mawr become visible: some with many, sturdy legs up, others with fewer, more tenuous supports. Cracks open among us. An international student writes of her shock at this divide: “i feel like i am an inhouse example of inclass/outclassed.”8

During the semester, Anne, I, and our student consultants lay out classifications that don’t hold, in a shifting, sliding effort to determine what determines class: How to label and compare? What about language, geography, education? The class is “about” class, the noun and its related verbs and adjectives, in all their permutations: grouped into upper crust and lower down, class can elucidate, complicate, detonate learning; can be crossed, or remain intractable, as we and our students face others’ experiences and are caught short, puzzled, troubled. All are inflected in our expressions of class positionality in ways that, as Peggy McIntosh puts it during a campus visit, “Marx wouldn’t understand.”9

Class reading provokes sometimes troubling questions. From Richard Rodriguez10 and Sandra Cisneros:11 Is education about rejecting your heritage? Does class awareness separate you from family, heritage, even yourself? From the working-class women studied by Wendy Luttrell: Is talking about school “code for talking about class”? Why does education “make you somebody,” and what about the value of real life intelligence?12, bell hooks13 and Pedro Noguera14) provoke questions about how a white, middle-class teacher might engage in “transformative education” with non-white, working class students. And intermittently throughout the semester, along with our students, Anne and I ponder Paulo Freire’s directive to use education to “rewrite the world.”15

Out of these multiple confrontations, I call up three encounters in what linguist Mary Louise Pratt calls the “contact zone…where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power.”16 Each encounter highlights classed presumptions that get dug up and disturbed, instigating unexpected questions that are opened, shut, revisited. In the first, our students leave the suburban college classroom to enter an urban high school. In the second, we host an on-campus event, which is not attended by some of the people most intimate to our students’ lives at college. In the third, we take up writing as a space where classed expectations can be examined and interrogated, as several students try out the Derridean notion of “welcoming…an act that entails acknowledging the other that haunts the self.”17

Teaching that interrogates class structures and education in a college like this one spirals into complexity: the first semester writing seminar is tasked with helping students “master” the assemblage of skills, knowledge and expectations that hold power relations in place. Enmeshed in class structures ourselves, while teaching students the skills to navigate them, we also look to interrupt, to teach “‘against the evidence,” aspiring “to change the deadly tides of wealth inequality…and personal despair.”18 Amid the “level playing fields” and “savage inequalities” of our course description, we grapple for traction. What world-shifting work can we contribute to here?

square of light

  1. Claire Potter, “The Unfinished Agenda: Women’s Education in the 21st Century,” Tenured Radical, March 15, 2016, accessed March 23, 2016.
  2. Grace Pusey, “Response to ‘Slippage’ Essays from Grace Pusey,” January 1, 2016 (16:42), accessed April 7, 2016.
  3. Office of Institutional Diversity, “2009 Diversity Survey Highlights,” Bryn Mawr College, 2010, 1-2, accessed March 23, 2016.
  4. Claudia Giananni, “Yearlong ‘Class Dismissed?’ Aims to Spark Discussion of Socioeconomic Class on Campus,” Inside Bryn Mawr, May 3, 2011, accessed March 23, 2016, April 7, 2016
  5. The New York Times, Class Matters (New York: Times Books, 2005).
  6. Diversity Leadership Group Selects Six ‘Class Dismissed’ Projects for Funding,” May 12, 2011, accessed April 7, 2016.
  7. Sam Fulwood III, “Race and Beyond: Income Differences Divide the College Campus in America,” Center for American Progress, March 13, 2012, accessed April 7, 2016.
  8. Utitofon, “Polarized Access to Education,” September 13, 2011 (2:32 p.m.), accessed April 7, 2016.
  9. Peggy McIntosh, “Coming to See Privilege Systems: The Surprising Journey,” presentation at Bryn Mawr College, November 18, 2008.
  10. Richard Rodriguez, “The Achievement of Desire” in Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (New York: Bantam, 1982), 43-73.
  11. Sandra Cisneros, “From a Writer’s Notebook,” The Americas Review 15 (1987): 69-79.
  12. Wendy Luttrell, Schoolsmart and Motherwise: Working-Class Women’s Identity and Schooling (New York: Routledge, 1997
  13. bell hooks, “Confronting Class in the Classroom,” in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (New York: Routledge, 1994), 177-190.
  14. Pedro Noguera, City Schools and the American Dream: Reclaiming the Promise of Public Education (New York: Teachers College Press, 2003.
  15. Paulo Friere. Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos (New York: Continuum, 1990).
  16. Mary Louise Pratt, “Arts of the Contact Zone,”Profession (1991): 34.
  17. Robert McRuer, Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability (New York and London: New York University Press, 2006: 208.
  18. Cornel West, qted. in Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade, “Note to Educators: Hope Required When Growing Roses in Concrete,” Harvard Educational Review(Summer 2009): 4.