Kenneth Oldfield, Richard Greggory Johnson III, eds. Resilience: Queer Professors from the Working Class. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008. ix + 254 pp. $83.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7914-7637-6; $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7914-7638-3.
Reviewed by Mark Oromaner
Published on H-Education (March, 2010)
Commissioned by Jonathan Anuik (University of Alberta)
From Outsiders to Insiders in the Academy
In their 2006 review of national data concerning the faculty in institutions of higher education in the United States, Jack H. Schuster and Martin J. Finkelstein observe that “a more class-diverse set of individuals has been infused increasingly into the formerly more homogeneous upper-class and upper-middle class mix.” Kenneth Oldfield and Richard Greggory Johnson III review no data but present thirteen compelling and detailed stories of individuals from a subset of the newcomers--queer individuals from the working class. These thirteen and their unknown number of peers have made the academic profession more heterogeneous in terms of both sexual orientation and class background. Their statements attest to the challenges each has encountered to survive in the academy and to make their colleagues and students more aware of queer and working-class experiences. In addition to the autobiographical material, approximately one-half of the essays contain at least one reference to a relevant publication; however, there is no comprehensive list of references. And, while the editors contribute a six-page introduction, there is no concluding chapter. The brevity of the introduction and the absence of a conclusion provide the reader with a greater opportunity than usual to find and stress examples of particular interest or themes and generalizations in the individual contributions. For me, the main theme is the predominance of the affect of social class or socioeconomic status origins throughout the life cycle of these academics. For example, Renny Christopher states that while she is perfectly happy in terms of her sexuality and gender, “class is harder to come to terms with” (p. 45). And Michallene McDaniel provides the following insightful statement: “While outwardly, I have a middle-class life, it doesn’t feel like it on the inside. In my head, I’m one bad lecture away from guarding a bank” (p. 169).
Oldfield and Johnson met when they were invited to participate on a panel at an American Society for Public Administration National Conference. The theme was how academic public administration ignores the role of social class in policy formation and execution. Only speakers who had “working-class” backgrounds, i.e., parents with no more that high school education and who held, at best, blue- or pink-collar jobs, were invited. During an informal conversation after the meeting, the future coeditors discussed the underrepresentation of such individuals in the profession and the subtle and overt challenges they faced at every level of higher education. They concluded that while universities may have recently become somewhat more inclusive of diverse students and faculty, “unfortunately, and not surprisingly, no college or university includes social class origins among its faculty diversity concerns” (p. 2). Oldfield and Johnson suggest that the continuing impact of their working-class origins contributed to the development of the relationship between this seemingly odd couple. Oldfield is a white, straight, married, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Springfield, and Johnson is in his early forties, African American, openly gay, and an assistant professor at the University of Vermont. The educational and academic career experiences of the contributors also attest to the impact of working-class origins. This ranges from lack of knowledge about the quality and prestige hierarchy among colleges to inadequate finances for graduate school to a lack of knowledge about middle-class mores and norms expected of academics. Of course, before they thought of going to college, academics from the working class had to confront realities, such as a narrow range of role models, insufficient cultural exposure, and a tracking system in the public schools. These are certainly resilient individuals.
Toward the end of their conversation, Oldfield and Johnson discussed the academy’s lack of progress in addressing classism in contrast to the progress it has made in addressing other forms of inequality. They concluded that it might be possible to collect enough autobiographical essays from academics that “use the joint criteria of social class origins and sexual orientations to interpret their lives before and after entering the academy” (p. 3). The authors could have equally used the joint criteria of class origins and gender or class origins and race.
Oldfield and Johnson issued a call for manuscripts. Although the reader is told that they hit their “target figure,” the reader is not told how the call was distributed, how many usable responses were received, or whether they stopped when the thirteen essays were received. Whatever their methodology may have been, they refer to the “striking” demographic diversity of the authors (p. 3). Contributors came from various regions of the country, from small towns and large cities, and from different religious and racial backgrounds, and they were roughly divided between males and females. In terms of present characteristics, they represented various age groups, faculty ranks, disciplines, and types of schools. With the exception of Angelia R. Wilson, all contributors work in the United States. Wilson was born in Texas and for the past two decades has studied and taught gender and political theory in the United Kingdom. The diversity of the authors can be viewed as a strength; however, it should not distract the reader from the focus of the volume--queer professors from the working class. In addition to not providing the specifics of the call, the editors omitted a formal definition of “queer.” Johnson pointed out to Oldfield that the term “queer” has moved from a derogatory descriptor to one of pride. Based on the essays presented, “queer” is used here as an umbrella term that includes bisexuals, gays, lesbians, and cross-dressers. However, there is no indication that the term is limited to these categories; there are a number of references to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) studies, activism, and clubs. Almost universally, in reference to their present self-identity, the authors use the specific rather than the umbrella term. My speculation is that this may be a generational or class phenomenon. That is, “queer” may be more acceptable among younger cohorts than those represented here, and it may be less acceptable among individuals of working-class origins than it is among individuals from other classes. As for “class,” the reader is informed that the term will be used interchangeably with “socioeconomic status.” Oldfield and Johnson have adopted the definition cited above for their determination of the working class: faculty who are the children of parents with no more that high school education who held, at best, blue- or pink-collar jobs. Given the relative lack of class awareness in the United States, it is understandable that class awareness was likely to develop later in life than awareness of a difference in sexual orientation.
The contributions could have been ordered in a number of ways. For example, randomly, alphabetically, by gender, by sexual orientation, or by category of higher education institution. Although no formal demarcations appear in the book, the papers are grouped according to discipline (physical science, language arts, and social science) and administrative role (governance). The first essay, “Class, Sexuality, and Academia” by Andrea R. Lehrermeier, is unique. Lehrermeier is described as an associate professor of geology at a large urban university. In an introductory note to this essay, written by the editors, the reader is told that this is a pseudonym and that certain names, locations, and references have also been changed. For the editors, “this author’s request for anonymity suggests that our culture is still scary enough to force some professors to seek protection through obscurity, at least from a wider audience” (p. 7). I would like to have heard more from the editors about this request. Did they receive other requests for anonymity from contributors or from potential contributors? At least one other author has changed the names of others in the narrative; however, there are no other cases in which the author seeks anonymity. Anonymity or not, one must admire the resilience of a self-described “butchy, geeky, white-trashy, half-crazy ex-Catholic Minnesota farm girl” (p. 22). Whether it is the story of “One Bad Lecture Away from Guarding a Bank: Identity as a Process,” “Becoming (Almost) One of Those ‘Damn, New York, Pinko Intellectuals,’” “From the Altar Boy’s Robes to the Professor’s Cap and Gown: The Journey of a Gay, Working-Class Academic,” “Hate is Not a Family Value,” or “My First Closet Was the Class Closet,” all authors demonstrate similar resilience in their ability to utilize inner strengths and social supports to counter the subtle and overt forms of prejudice and discrimination against queers and the working class. After all of this, I wondered about their peers who were not fortunate enough to have such inner and external supports while growing up.
Oldfield and Johnson argue that this collection will help the majority (insiders) understand how these minorities (outsiders) deal with dominant power structures and may help the insiders to question some of their assumptions about outsiders. The essays also demonstrate how outsiders can become insiders and have an influence within the academy. Faculty and administrators can infuse the curriculum with queer and class-oriented material and courses. The sociologist Donald C. Barrett provides an excellent example, “as one of a small number of openly gay faculty on campus, I can bring my own perspective on class and orientation into discussions of sexuality and curriculum. And, because many of my students are first-generation college, I can use my ‘outside’ status to help them think critically about inequality” (p. 191). In a similar manner, Christopher developed a general education course in GLBT studies, and Denis M. Provencher integrated his working-class background and gay identity into his intercultural communication course. However, based on her experience in teaching social justice classes, Felice Yeskel warns that, “from all my years of such teaching, I’ve found classism provokes the strongest reactions of all the isms” (p. 142).
By addressing two outsider statuses, queer and working class, within higher education, Resilience makes a contribution to a number of academic areas, such as higher education, queer studies, and class studies, and a variety of audiences, including policymakers, administrators, faculty, counselors, and students. The autobiographical essays are particularly effective in providing the reader with insights into the ways in which outsiders cope within the academy and coped on their journey to the academy. The good news is that significant changes have been made within the university, especially in terms of sexual orientation. The bad news is that less progress has been made in terms of adjustments for persons of working-class origin, and there is little indication that changes soon will be made in the broader society of the United States to open the pipeline to access in graduate education and faculty positions for the working class.
. Jack H. Schuster and Martin J. Finkelstein, The American Faculty: The Restructuring of Academic Work and Careers (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 65.
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Mark Oromaner. Review of Oldfield, Kenneth; Johnson III, Richard Greggory, eds., Resilience: Queer Professors from the Working Class.
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