“Getting Above Your Raising”: A Long Post

“I got an image, out of control./ Identity crisises.” — Alice Cooper, “Identity Crisis.”

Last week I posted some thoughts on the music I listen to, and Quid Plura‘s proprietor was sharp enough to note an underlying issue:

[Y]ou hint at what I think is an under-discussed phenomenon: How moving as an outsider into an academic (or other sort of high-culture) milieu makes us take a hard look at the stuff we used to like and prompts us to ask: “Why did I like these things? Do I still like these things? What do the answers to those questions say about me?
[…] I’ve seen lots of successful people, both in academia and in other careers in D.C., who never ask those questions and deliberately forget where they came from. I’m baffled and disturbed by the ease with which they accomplish that.

So am I, but at the same time, I’m not really surprised. I’ve mentioned before that folks have described academia as following a guild model, and part of what a guild did/does is provide an acculturation process. The process is easy for some — people from backgrounds with higher amounts of what Bourdieu would call cultural capital.  These are often people from the middle or upper classes, especially in the humanities, which the culture frequently sees (both for good and for ill) as disconnected from/unsullied by the mundane, workaday world of seemingly more practical fields.

(I disagree with this cultural stereotype, but I acknowledge its existence. At the same time, I think that much of the political agon in the humanities stems from a misguided attempt to overcome the stereotype by making the subject matter “relevant.” I would contend that the subject matter is always relevant, and that the political thrust of the past few decades is merely another sort of buying into the stereotype. But that’s probably a different post.)

As I said, some classes of society are more to the academic manner born (and some are to the manor born as well). Those who are not often find themselves both challenged and expected to adopt those manners. For example:

Because of my non-traditional degree, I didn’t have any traditional scholarship to submit when I applied for my M.A. Instead, I enclosed a lengthy statement/explanation of my background, and some of the other writing I had done, including some writing about heavy metal music and some fiction with a rock and roll setting, because it was stuff I knew about, played, and liked. Although I was accepted into the program, it wasn’t long before one of my professors came into the office I shared while I was sitting around jawing with an officemate and another friend.

The professor looked at me as if I were an exotic, but potentially dangerous animal. “Mondo,” he asked me, “What’s the deal with this heavy metal stuff?”

“What do you mean?”

“Why are you writing about stuff like that?”

“I like it. Most of my bands have played it. I listen to it when I write.”

He walked away after a bit of small talk, and my officemate, who was a New Yorker, and the son of an engineer and a professor, said, “You blew it.” I asked what I had done, and he said, “You should have told him you listen to Miles Davis and Charlie Mingus when you write.”

“But I don’t. I mean, I listen to them sometimes [and I had in fact had a front-row seat for Miles the year before], but not much. Mainly I listen to Priest or B.O.C. or something proggy.”

“Yeah, and now [the professor] is gonna think of you as ‘that guy who listens to stupid people music’.” It wasn’t stupid people music, of course, but folks like my prof thought it was, and that was enough.

At this point, you’re probably thinking “OK, Mondo, some profs are snobs. So?” Well, the “so” brings us back to the acculturation process. People who come from/are interested in scenes with low cultural capital (e.g., hard rock) are informed, sometimes subtly, sometimes not, that is they want to fit into the guild, they need to trade up. And if they don’t, they won’t fit in very well — groupthink takes a lot of forms, social as well as intellectual. (This is a process that can take place at any and all levels. Do a search for collegiality and tenure denial and see what you find.) Even acceptable eccentricities may fall into a fairly narrow band.

But the pressure doesn’t have to be a harsh as tenure denial. Academics (unsurprisingly) tend to be folks who have done well in school, and in our educational system, part of that is fitting in/following orders/not making waves. Embracing the attitude of the guild is just another example of that self-selected disposition playing out.

Of course, looking at Jeff’s point in a larger way, the idea of leaving one’s past/reinventing oneself is common enough in our literature, and especially in American lit — consider Silas Lapham, Sammy Glick, or Jay Gatsby, for three different takes. But I could never be a Jay Gatsby; I’ve never really had that kind of protective coloration. Or maybe it’s just a familial history of contrariness, or the working-class trait of pride in their lives, with the corollary anger at disrespect from outsiders or former insiders who have “gotten above their raising” — hard for me to say, as I’m too close to my own situation.

I think about the questions Jeff raised earlier, but maybe because I never really fit in when I was a kid and an adolescent (a stage the Mondettes might tell you I haven’t yet left), I’m OK with not entirely fitting in now. The Spawn is in middle school now, with all its pressures to conform, and I tell her to be who she is. It’s all I really know how to do.

So however it plays out, I do what I do. It’s not a case of “keepin’ it real,” because again I think that indicates assent to someone else’s definition of what authenticity is for me. It’s just about liking what I like, and if you think it odd that there’s room for William Cowper and Alice Cooper, then I give you a little Whitman: “I am large; I contain multitudes.” And now I’ll go back to my reading and to some Mitch Ryder.

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About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
This entry was posted in Culture, Education, Family, Literature, Music, Why I Do What I Do. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to “Getting Above Your Raising”: A Long Post

  1. Jeff says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful response to what was, I must admit, an impulsive observation on my part. While I don’t think academic acculturation is society’s greatest scourge–I’ve responded to it at different times with annoyance, amusement, and resignation–I don’t think it’s been great for academia, and the narrow band of acceptable eccentricity is indeed shrinking. During a recent meeting, I mentioned to colleagues that our continuing-ed students remind me of my family and friends back home. I don’t know if it was my enthusiasm or my explicit reference to suburban, middle-class roots, but the looks I got suggested I’d said something terribly gauche. I just shrugged, but as the meeting progressed, the statements of a couple of administrators (things I’d be wise not to document here, alas) gave me cause to wonder if they even still had thoughts and opinions of their own, or if they’d become so acculturated that they’d say whatever was necessary to hold onto their jobs. I know that conservative critics of academia dwell on ideological bias, but my hunch is that there’s a more elusive and squishier tribalism behind it.

  2. Tim Kowal says:

    I think it is incredibly ignorant for anyone to call metal “stupid people music.” I mean, sure, there is the sort of image portrayed by the movie “Airheads,” but then there were bands like Carcass and Cannibal Corpse that composed incredibly complex pieces of music and pulled their lyrics out of medical dictionaries. This was an offshoot of the prog rock of the 70s like Rush, probably my all time favorite band. Prog rock can also become too cerebral to be enjoyable—I’ve never been able to sit through an entire song by Godspeed You Black Emperor. Thus, listening to these “math rock” bands can give you a similar cultural effect as classical music.

    The difference is, math rock is, by a matter of degrees, a form of what is ultimately an accessible form of music—“pop music.” Most genres of music have some point where they become accessible. Classical is about the only exception. If you can stomach it, it’ll give you a lot of opportunity to look down your nose at other people.

  3. Alpheus says:

    A couple of years ago, Jeff posted a comment to A&J in which he offered a sharp, funny, and (based on my experience) very apt portrait of what it’s like for someone raised outside the academic culture to join it for the first time. I’ve since taken down the original post, since between the post itself and the comments thereon the veneer of my anonymity was stripped pretty thin. That was a pity, since it was personally one of my favorite posts, and produced an interesting discussion in the comments, of which I thought Jeff’s was the highlight.

    Jeff, do I have your permission to repost the comment here? I’m hoping you remember it: it involved “the Klimt show,” the MoMA, New York Times crossword puzzles, Charles Simic, and Jane Eyre.

  4. Jeff says:

    Alpheus, yes, if you still have that comment, feel free to reproduce it. I’ll be curious to see if I still believe precisely what I said back then!

  5. Alpheus says:

    Thanks, Jeff! This really does deserve to live on.

    Professor Mondo, I should have asked your permission too. If you decide it doesn’t belong here, I won’t be offended. I suppose it’s slightly less relevant to the topic at hand than I thought, but it speaks to the way one is expected to master a whole new culture — which tends, slowly but surely, to drive out the old (although I, for one, still don’t see what the big deal is about Klimt and Charles Simic).

    The rest is Jeff, from January, 2008:

    Having experienced much of what Alpheus is talking about, I think he’s right to suggest, in his most recent comment, that it’s less about economic status and more about growing up far from the intellectual environment some of us encounter only when we first hit the grad-school scene.

    For a newcomer, the culture shock is remarkable. When I was a new grad student, I kept hearing friends referring to “the Klimt show” and “MoMA,” and I assumed that Klimt was a band and MoMA was some sort of trendy club. I was probably 24 before I figured out what this “NPR” was that my fellow grad students kept talking about, and the first time I saw grown men and women bragging about finishing the Sunday Times crossword puzzle, I had to laugh; to my mind, crosswords were pastimes for elderly shut-ins. (And why were people outside of New York reading the New York Times anyway? What was wrong with the Sunday edition of the Central Jersey Home News?)

    On campus, some of my fellow grad students were stunned to learn that I’d never heard of Charles Simic, and when I naively asked why we were supposed to dislike the English department’s last remaining supporter of a modernized form of New Criticism, I received appalled looks–but no explanation. In our seminar on the Victorian novel, more than half the class wrote papers about Jane Eyre and feminist theory–and then presented these utterly indistinguishable papers in our mock conference, one after the other.

    For those of us who are not (to use Alpheus’s phrase) born to the gown, these and other examples surprised us, because what we expected would be a community of playful intellectuals often turned out to be a dreary world of received wisdom. When you’ve pushed away from your old life, usually at some personal cost, you’re acutely attuned to that contrast.

    I share Alpheus’s discomfort with academic conferences, but over the years I’ve moved from bemusement to amusement at the whole business. Honestly, though, if you grew up in an environment that encouraged and even rewarded intellectual pursuits, then you probably don’t realize how alien your inborn comfort with the culture seems to us newcomers. The initial disorientation is much broader than the universal problem of a newbie who’s simply mastering some professional jargon to impress his bosses and peers.

    • profmondo says:

      Jeff, I’m glad you wrote this, and I’m glad Alpheus saved it. My feelings of alienation probably weren’t quite that dramatic, as my folks had boho tendencies , but I certainly remember feeling out of place when people talked about the trips they had made to Europe (someplace I’m still waiting to visit) when I had never been north of Dayton, Ohio, east of DC, or west of St. Louis.

      Likewise, I didn’t know anything about wine or coffee (still don’t, other than frappuccinos), and had absolutely no clue about the various priests of High Theory whose names would be dropped. I had read my way through the five-foot shelf in my teens, and several decades of Readers’ Digest, which we found at garage sales or got from neighbors, but I had no preparation for many of the moments Jeff’s post describes. For example, I learned pretty quickly that I probably shouldn’t mention having read Readers’ Digest (or the Harvard Classics, both of which were relics of a declasse “striver’s” mentality), and that I should call movies “films.”

      It damned near drove me out of the profession. I knew I was as smart as anyone in my classes, but the lifestyle struck me as being both pretentious and alien to the way people in my world thought and lived. I cared deeply about literature and writing, but I had no desire to be like most of those schmucks. I did my Ph.D. at a non-flagship university, after the theory wars were over, and there was a lot less of that sort of cultural posturing going on — although I do remember explaining to one classmate that I went to Toronto instead of Europe because it was an easier drive from Indiana.

      All in all, it’s probably a good thing that I wound up in Mondoville. Since we’re so far from the top of the academic food chain, I can watch sports and listen to Motorhead without irony, and I don’t have to hide the fact that I’d rather read Peter S. Beagle than Don DeLillo. It reminds me of a conversation I had with my dad about artists and writers. He told me, “If someone calls their picture a picture, that’s fine. If they call it a painting, watch out — they’re poseurs.” Similarly, I was looking at stories and poems when my peers were interrogating texts. The difference is cultural, but it’s also a difference in self-regard, and in the realm of getting above one’s raising.

  6. Jeff says:

    I’m glad Alpheus saved it, too! I have a terrible memory, especially for my own writing, so I’ve just cut-and-pasted that comment so I can cite myself in the future and then bask in my own self-regard.

    Your reference to coffee and wine is interesting, because I arrived for my first round of grad school certain that I’d be judged on the quality of my recommendations (written by decidedly non-famous profs), my skill with foreign languages (then nearly nonexistent), my mastery of the literary canon (spotty as a leaf in a G.M. Hopkins poem), my publication history (nothing but comic strips in a college paper), or even my ability to schmooze with academic royalty (then, as now, a totally lost cause). As far as my peers were concerned, none of that mattered; I’d have been far better equipped to chat with the slickest of them if I’d been aware of the latest buzz from NPR, The New York Times, or The New Yorker. That’s a generalization with lots of exceptions, and it was totally untrue of the Catholic university I attended the second time around, but I still think it’s funny that the road to highbrow academic success often runs through lands littered with irrelevant chatter about middlebrow and upper-middlebrow ephemera.

    All in all, I’m grateful for the experience. Because of those years, I’m better able to perceive the difference between people who love books and art and history and people who are just faking it for the sake of signaling their tribal affiliation. In D.C., there’s a real gulf between people who say they support the arts and humanities (almost everyone) and people who actually support or participate in the arts and humanities (almost no one).

  7. J. Otto Pohl says:

    I hate to say it, but I have no idea who Simic and Klimt are. I think the pretentious culture above may be a feature unique to American academia. Even though I am an American, my PhD is from the UK and I have never taught in the US. I taught for three years in Central Asia and start teaching in Africa in January. It did occur to me in the years after I got my PhD that the reason I had trouble finding a job in the US was my intellectual outsider status. But, given the awful academic job market right now I am very happy to start working at the University of Ghana next month.

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