Class and the Creation of the Professoriate

James M. Van Wyck engages with Lynn Arner in a conversation about class and the creation of the professoriate.

Not too long ago over a cup of coffee, a friend described a difference in his reception on the academic job market after he secured an Ivy League postdoc. He told me that, while his middle-tier institutional affiliation cracked a few doors, sending out applications on Ivy League letterhead busted them open.

That’s when it struck me: he’d laundered his degree. His credentials hadn’t changed, really. (He’d published over a half dozen articles before going on the job market the first time.) But he’d overcome a prestige deficit by switching letterheads.

This story shouldn’t surprise anyone with a stake in the tenure-track job market. Prestige, after all, is the hemoglobin in the bloodstream of academic value. We’re all familiar with a version of the academic placement truism that “universities don’t hire down.” Highly ranked programs hire their own, those aspiring to be highly ranked hire from the ranks of those already on top and so on.

But academe’s prestige problem isn’t just about reifying the top 40 Ph.D. programs in a particular field. In fact, we’re still unpacking the ways that prestige chasing connects with a classed professoriate.


Lynn Arner -- a medievalist and gender-studies scholar by training and currently an associate professor at Brock University in Ontario, Canada -- studies how socioeconomic backgrounds and gender shape the careers of English professors. One of Arner’s central arguments is that most academics disavow the extent to which prestige-chasing practices link up with assumptions about class to shape hiring practices in higher education.

Arner’s work complements a growing body of research examining the clunky apparatuses by which higher education seeks to diversify the professoriate. Many well-intentioned efforts are hampered by homophily as well as the inability to recognize how certain value systems have produced a professoriate laden with professors drawn from the middle and upper classes.

Arner has confronted the phenomenon firsthand. When she was on the job market in the 2000s, she interviewed for several tenure-track jobs at research universities and says she kept losing to candidates with doctorates from the same universities: Yale, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania. She taught as a visiting faculty member at a research university in an English department “where working-class female faculty members were relegated to the temp pool,” she recalls. In contrast, women hired into tenure-track positions were solidly middle class and had Ivy League pedigrees. “While I taught there, the department had a tenure-track search in my area, but a middle-class woman with an Ivy League doctorate blocked me from being interviewed at the Modern Language Association, pronouncing me ‘not well enough connected,’” she notes. “I was simultaneously appalled and fascinated by the fierce classism in this department that served large numbers of working-class students in a city with a celebrated working-class history.”

It’s clear that recruiting and hiring a professoriate as diverse as the student population it serves requires intentional, systemic change. One area in need of a revamp is graduate admissions: we can’t hope for a diverse professoriate if we continue to recruit and admit students just as we have in the past.

Assumptions about the living conditions of prospective graduate students must also be challenged. As Christienna D. Fryar put it on Twitter, “U.S. academia is structured around assumption that you (grad student, adjunct/full-time professor) have constant access to family wealth.” A break in financial support for students moving from undergraduate to graduate education, for example, presumes quite a bit about the class of those students.

Moreover, Arner’s work shows how implicit, unacknowledged biases shape who gets interviews for tenure-track jobs, and especially who gets job offers. Her research instructs us to look to the MLA interview for clues to this embedded problem. Drawing on insights from a range of disciplines (including feminist theory and sociology) Arner argues that the structure of the interview process (short interviews) privileges certain demographics over others.

In 2014, she published “Working-Class Women at the MLA Interview.” The keyword here is “at.” That’s because the study shows how the physical presence of interviewees -- and the ways interviewers implicitly judge these presences -- effectively work to bar certain groups (in this case working-class women) from the tenure track at highly ranked universities and colleges.

To read the conversation between James and Lynn, check out the entire article at Inside Higher Ed,