With a little bit of luck, and a lot of waiting as my flight from Chicago was delayed, I finally made it back to Columbus from AWP. I left Seattle with fond memories of the Emerald City, buoyed by the camaraderie of the conference. How wonderful to see so many of my favorite people all in one place and to participate in the ongoing conversation about our writing and our teaching. Only one piece of unfinished business left me a bit unsettled, and I’d like to address it in this post.
About a year ago, Karen McElmurray and I started talking about a conversation in the media that was calling attention to the under-represented status of students from working class families on college campuses. Coming from working class families ourselves, we started to recall our own college experiences, which led us to wonder about the experiences of the students in our creative writing workshops who came from similar backgrounds. At some point, one of us said to the other, “We should propose an AWP panel,” and the other one said, “I’m in.”
So we invited Sonja Livingston, Carter Sickels, and Claire Vaye Watkins to join the conversation on our panel: “Hidden Populations: The Working Class in the Creative Writing Workshop.” On Thursday afternoon, we raised some issues relevant to pedagogy and art-making, as we considered the working class in the writing workshop. It was my hope that we’d have sufficient time at the end of the panel for questions, comments, and the sharing of personal stories. Alas, the best laid plans of mice and. . .
Unfortunately, despite my best planning, we ran long and had only a few minutes to hear one audience member speak eloquently and passionately about her former homelessness and the hope for financial security that her advancement through academia promised. Since then, I’ve heard from a few other folks who were in the audience, and I’m heartened to know that they thought the panel finally opened up a topic that few people had adequately discussed, that topic of social mobility, the promises inherent in it, promises that often go unfilled, and the anger that results from being caught between two cultures. One writer discussed feeling “undereducated in the academy, overeducated at home, judged and isolated in both, and pressured to choose one or the other.” Another writer addressed the financial struggle that she faces as an adjunct instructor, the lack of tenure-track jobs, and the expectations that candidates will have published multiple books. This writer speaks powerfully about fleeing her small town for academia so she might avoid working in its factories and now finding herself earning a smaller wage as an adjunct and with less job security.
I know there are other voices out there, voices that deserve to be heard, so I’d like to use this forum for that purpose. Please feel free to express your thoughts on issues relevant to students from the working class in academia. Claire Vaye Watkins closed our panel by calling for a revolution in order to revise the way we think about what we have to offer our students. It’s crucial that we keep the conversation going so it can eventually lead to action.
I’ll close by quoting from a blog post by Emily Loftis, a Wellesley student from a working class family, as I did during our panel. Emily writes about the anger that she still carries from her experiences at Wellesley, experiences like feeling excluded when a professor asks students to raise their hands if they’ve visited countries x, y, or z, or not being able to do a summer internship because of the need for a paying job. Emily also speaks of the anger that comes from being resented and excluded in her hometown because she dared to dream of more for herself. “My anger is the unspoken side effect of social mobility,” she says, “what no one ever talks about, but I need to talk about it.”
We need to hear more voices like Emily’s and those of the two writers I mentioned in this post.
We can intellectualize and analyze all we want—after all, we’re so good at that in academia!—but it’s those personal voices and stories that humanize the situation and make it impossible to ignore.
So consider this an open invitation. Student loan debt, exclusionary language in the classroom, insufficient MFA student funding, childcare issues, health insurance benefits . . .I’m brainstorming some possible topics. Help me add to the list. Tell me your stories.
AWP is a celebration, but sometimes we have to let the jubilation die down so we can ask ourselves, “What can we do better?”