Privilege in Academia: An Extended Note

Today, while scrolling down my Facebook newsfeed, I spotted a post by Third Level Workplace Watch about a storify on what it means to be from a less well-off background today in academia being done by Caroline Magennis. Reading the storify, I had to add my own small contribution:

Reading each and every response – some angry, some witty, most staunchly determined – has made me think of my own position within academia and my relationship to it. Not that I haven’t done this on many occasions among friends suffering the same anxieties, the same sense of not quite belonging. It’s a question of economics of course, but at some point the economic and the cultural bleed together.

My time as a PhD student coincided with the beginning of, and then the continuation of, the economic recession. It also coincided with the ratcheting up of plans to infuse every area of life from education to healthcare with the same neo-liberal economic, political and social thinking that drove the very same recession. To do a PhD in history about sport, about (mostly) working-class people in the middle of this recession was some experience. The history of working-class people isn’t as sexy as it used to be, and with those same people being hammered politically today, writing their history seemed, and continues to seem, ever more important.

Before finishing my PhD, I was given the chance to write an article for a book which most of the people on this blog contributed to. It was edited by David Convery, whose idea it was to set up The Dustbin of History as a space for us all to explore ideas relating to our craft. One of the best things about that book, Locked Out: A Century of Irish Working-Class Life, was that it made me feel, personally, as though I was given a chance to write about something I felt was important not just historically, but also on a personal level. The factory leagues which I wrote about for the chapter in that book was more than just me working as a historian – it was me saying that the kind of history I care about is worth caring about and that I knew plenty of others would care about it. David’s decision to include that chapter in that book was confirmation of this for me. It remains a proud moment for me that it was described in a review by Emmet O’Connor of the book in Irish Historical Studies, which on the whole was somewhat unfair on the book as ‘[managing] to be both objective and evocatively nostalgic of a lost collectivism.” Whatever else I may achieve as a historian, I’ll have that.

And this is the thing: I am a historian. I have worked hard to not alone attain that professional title – with the huge help and sacrifices of my family and others – but to even feel comfortable telling people that’s what I do has been a battle. That’s what privilege in academia is. Comfort in saying that. To anyone. In any context. I rarely self-identify as it, but I am a historian. That’s what I really do. When all is said and done. I historicize. Every situation. Including my own. Including the kind of situation that prompts an academic to pose the question that Caroline Magennis has.

Right now, I am happily living in Prague and teaching English as a second language, away from the sometimes crushing race towards greater self-criticism that academia – and the humanities especially – seem to be coming. But the truth is, I’d probably give it all up in the morning for a post, any post, in a decent university in Ireland or Britain. That’s a kind of stupidity.

Right now, I don’t do it for a living. At least, not exactly. That is, I don’t have a post in a university somewhere. I do have my PhD. I do have the monograph based on that PhD in the bookshops. I have this blog and my own personal blog. I do have a special issue of a journal to co-edit in the coming months. I do have an article to write for a special issue of another journal. In other words, I have everything to do to keep myself active in the world of academia for the next twelve months.

Here’s what I don’t have: an endless supply of cash. Or time. Or patience with a system that is increasingly being reshaped and set up to prevent people like me from being able to work in academia unless you have an endless supply of cash or a boss willing to give you time off to attend conferences. After a certain point you have to start making choices.

Relatively speaking, in the modern world. I have a huge deal of privilege. A white heterosexual male born in a country which when I was a child was an economic miracle. I am aware of that thanks to the high level of educational attainment I have been lucky to receive. But there’s privilege, which I certainly have and then there’s the kind of privilege required to succeed in contemporary academia. That I do not have and as long as I have to work a day job to fund the rest of it, I’m less and less likely to attain that particular form of privilege. I am one of thousands. And what am I doing to change that?

Well, not much, but I try. When Third Level Workplace Watch began a series called postcards from the periphery, I submitted my own picture, just one week before I left for Prague. Today, when I saw the question posed by Caroline Magennis, I favourited, retweeted, tweeted and engaged. I have written this blog post in response. Whenever there are one of the many blogpostsarticles or features railing against the neo-liberalised university and the precarity of the academic profession for new entrants, just like this one, I share them on social media. I talk endlessly with friends about it. But action? Real action? I’m not sure I’ve taken any yet except the odd subversive comment to a group of students in a lecture or a tutorial. Hardly the stuff of revolutions.

Like so many other occupations that are being made increasingly precarious, there’s little you can do to transform the position when you are operating in effect outside of it. This is made worse by the fact that you so desperately want to be a member of the club. My story is far from unique, and I’ve had some advantages to get as far as I have. The question now is, how far can any of us who are not possessors of the privilege of academia go without having to give up? There is a building sense that what has happened to our universities cannot be allowed to continue. But it is only by discussing things like academic privilege in this context that we can begin to get to the root of one of what will be the current situation’s illest effects: soon many humanities subjects will be taught – if they are still taught at all – in our universities by people of privilege: economic, racial, sexual and cultural and social privilege. This will impoverish our public discourse and ensure the continuation of real actual impoverishment of people.


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3 responses to “Privilege in Academia: An Extended Note

  1. Reblogged this on Sidelines and commented:

    A slightly extended version of my earlier post today for collaborative history blog, The Dustbin of History.

  2. Steve Kerensky

    I sympathise greatly with your predicament. When my father arrived in London aged 12 having nearly died of starvation in Petrograd his mother was denied the commonest emigre job of translating at the Foreign Office because of her husband. Then she had find a private school as she would not let the boys be beaten. So there was real poverty.
    I was persecuted at school because I could not do maths and dyslexia/dyscalcula was unknown in the 60`s and I left with my life already in ruins.
    All I offer is praise for your perseverance and the assurance to say you will get to where your going. If you want money, you had best write an outrageous historical novel like the Flashman books (Far/ Middle East ones are best) . Otherwise, stick to your last and when your vitrues are recognised, you will be unstoppable – there`a story to this effect on a large and beautifully carved Chinese (?) Ming soapstone in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. So it must be true.

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