Academics from less privileged backgrounds share their stories

2015-02-18 10.00.04

Early summer 1995 and I’m in Northampton for the first time in my life, being interviewed for the post of Lecturer in Ecology at what was then Nene College*, the institution that evolved into the University of Northampton a decade later.  The interview went well, as I was offered the job, but I was very irritated by one of the comments made by a senior member of the panel (now retired).  He asked me about my background and how I came to this point in my career, and whether my parents had been to university.

This had no relevance to the job I’d applied for as far as I could see, but I responded that my father had originally been a coal miner, then subsequently had worked in construction, my mother a housewife with occasional part-time cleaning jobs.  I’d attended a large local comprehensive school in the North East and achieved terrible grades at A-level, and had eventually got to university by a rather circuitous route.

“Oh” said the panel member superciliously “You’ve done very well for yourself, haven’t you?”

My initial reaction was that I wanted to say: “Yes, with a good first degree and a PhD, I have done very well for myself, thank you very much, but I don’t need you to tell me that so fuck off and stop being such a patronising prick”.  But I needed a job and figured that this response was unlikely to go in my favour.  So I quietly agreed and seethed on the train home.

Why am I telling you this story?  Because there’s a great article over at the Times Higher’s website by Caroline Magennis, who asked a question on Twitter about how academics from less privileged backgrounds felt about their current roles and some of the barriers they had had to face.  It’s well worth reading; a bit of clueless condescension in a job interview is at the low end of a spectrum of experiences that people have shared with her.

*NEN College, not NEEN College

17 thoughts on “Academics from less privileged backgrounds share their stories

  1. Clem

    A precious piece Jeff. And thanks for the link, it looks like something to follow up with.

    Being a science professional outside the ivory towers can have its moments as well. But for me its simply an indication we’ve stretched the boundaries of common experience pretty far. In the rural area where I grew up there were plenty of farmers, but no ag. scientists. I can recall a conversation with my Dad while home on a break as I was finishing up my Ph.D. He wanted to know what I planned to do with this fancy education. There were no examples in the area to point to. We got to the bottom of it eventually, but the experience stuck with me.

    As we move about throughout our daily lives we cross paths with all sorts of folk. We might smugly believe we understand (in broad strokes) what another person’s life is like. But if we have no close personal experience to another’s life history then the impression we have is sort of like something we’ve read about in a book… as opposed to measured first hand in the field.

  2. Anna

    Thank God that you didn’t let it deter you because your lectures to me a year later were great…..and I think I know what member of the department you are referring to and my goodness, he was always super rude….

    Bring on the working classes in HE… should not be for the privileged, I sign every petition I can to make education free at all levels. ✊

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Thanks Anna, that’s very nice of you to say. Though I should clarify that it wasn’t a member of the department who said that, it was a member of the college’s senior management team. Can’t think who the person you’re referring to is…. 😉

  3. Philip Martin

    Nice piece Jeff, it touched a chord though my background is quite different to yours.

    I also got terrible A-levels after having failed my 11 plus (yes, this still exists in some parts of South Manchester) and, more importantly, suffering a nervous breakdown in my late teens. While I ended up with a good BSc, the fact that it wasn’t from a ‘red brick’ establishment was a source of shame for a while. However, the passage of time and making friends with excellent researchers that don’t have degrees from world-class universities have helped kill off this element of my imposter syndrome.

    However, I definitely come from a background of (relative) privilege, and admit I hadn’t given too much thought to how I behave towards people in academia from different social backgrounds. I hope I haven’t been a ‘patronising prick’ at any point, but will aim to do a better job on this front in the future.

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Thanks for sharing Philip. I think it’s possible for everyone to be unwittingly patronising at various points. In fact I had written another paragraph at the end of this post that, which my editor-in-chief (Karin) pointed out was also patronising, so I deleted it!

  4. Tracy Hayes

    Touch a chord here – I too am the ‘product’ of a large comprehensive in the North-East (good results) followed by two miserable years at a Girls Grammar in the South-East (terrible A-level results). My parents didn’t believe in higher education for girls: “A waste of time and money, you’ll only get married and have children. No need for university, best get a job until you find a husband.”

    After a very circuitous route, via the Open University (1st class BSc) and De Montfort (MA) I eventually secured a lecturing post in November last year. My parents’ reaction? “Oh, so now you’ve got a proper job, you’ll be able to stop studying.” Hmmmm…. think not! Small matter of PhD to finish… then post-doc work 😉

  5. Helen

    Interesting to read about your background. I don’t come from a privileged background either, though I think it might be easier to succeed in some disciplines than others without that start in life. It did help that I went to university at a time when there were grants for undergraduate degrees.

    Overall, I’d say that confidence, or lack of it, is as big a barrier as finances. Fortunately, I had very supportive teachers – and no one has ever asked me in interview about my parents’ employment!

  6. bradlaugh fields visitor

    Yes, excellent post! Thank-you, a definite resonance there. These taboos need breaking. By synchronicity (or coincidence if you prefer) heard Jim Al-Qalili’s “Life Scientific” with Prof Geoff Palmer who had an eye-watering quote from his experience, worth a listen:

    I also visited the link you gave to Caroline Magennis and her Storify and was struck by how people still seem to feel they need to change themselves to fit in with the prevalent upper class and upper middle class norms. My response is NO, no, no! There may possibly be enough resources in the world for the genuine needs of each of us – 7 Billion and increasing – but there definitely is not enough for the greed, status-anxiety and keeping-up-with-the-Jones’s consumerism of the over-privileged with their sense of entitlement that is constantly on display in so many social situations now.

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Thanks Serena. Yes, I listened to Geoff Palmer’s interview, it was very interesting. By further coincidence I came close to doing a degree in brewing at Heriot-Watt after working in a brewery in the North East, and so would have been taught by him. My path went in another direction however.


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