Web Site Helps Blue-Collar Academics Thrive Behind Ivy-Covered Walls


To James Vander Putten, it’s somewhere he can laugh about the time his blue collar slipped out at a fancy faculty do.

Ken Oldfield sees it as a chance to brag about the grandmother who kept things together by cooking eight hours a day on the cement floor of a West Virginia diner--and not have to worry that he’s losing points with his audience.

The place is Working Class Academics, an Internet support and networking group. The point: How to negotiate the Chardonnay-and-brie world of academia on a beer-and-pretzels background.

“It’s a minefield,” says Vander Putten, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and one of the more than 200 members of WCA. “In my very brief faculty career, I’ve learned that like hires like and so what you don’t know is often more important than what you do know.”


Professors like Vander Putten and Oldfield aren’t the first to look at academia through blue-collar glasses. But it’s only been in the last five years that they’ve had an Internet connection.

It began when sociologist Barbara J. Peters happened upon an Internet posting from a woman who wrote that she didn’t understand the fuss about social background--after all, she’d chosen to be working class with a stint as a waitress.

“It just pushed a button,” says Peters, a former welfare mother who grew up in rural poverty--no running water, for starters. “I sent a message: If you chose to be working class you definitely were not working class. It’s not a choice.”

Response to that message was so heavy that Peters decided to create a separate forum--Working Class Academics.


Since then there’s been a regular stream of postings as members vent, mentor, network and chew over such philosophical issues as when--or if--one ceases to be working class and the right way to twirl spaghetti. “We’ve talked about, ‘Is country music working class? Is wearing polyester versus linen working class?’ You name it, we’ve talked about it,” says Peters.

It’s hard to pin down the number of working-class academics.

At the American Assn. of University Professors in Washington, D.C., spokeswoman Iris Molotsky said she doesn’t know of any survey that arrives at a total of working-class scholars. Still, on an anecdotal level, a recent New York Times article on Working Class Academics got people at the association “thinking about all of our friends and our own backgrounds, and we realized that in fact it’s quite unusual,” she said.

Oldfield, a professor of public administration at the University of Illinois at Springfield, has researched the point, surveying faculty at a Big Ten university about their parents’ education and occupation.


He found that more than half of the 567 respondents said their parents were doctors, lawyers or other professionals. Only about 2% reported their parents were from the lowest 20% of the socioeconomic ladder, with backgrounds such as janitors or cooks.

Oldfield thinks it’s time universities started collecting this kind of data on their own, with the idea of creating affirmative action for poor and blue-collar students and faculty.

He knows that’s a tough proposition.

“There is this unwillingness to talk about class,” he says.


Is social class that important in a self-help world?

Vander Putten has run into people who say, “So you take an etiquette class, you can learn those things.”

The problem, he says, is that entering university life from the wrong side of the tracks means more than not knowing what fork to use at the chancellor’s holiday gala.

There’s the time, for instance, when, as a promising graduate student, he was invited to a swank soiree.


Prepped to impress, he announced he’d soon be making his first trip overseas--to the Scottish city of Edinburgh.

Except he mangled “Edinboruh” as “Edin-BERG"--"thinking, hey, I’ve been to Pittsburgh"--and also discovered the well-heeled and well-traveled table wasn’t too impressed to find out he was making his maiden voyage at age 37.

“Of course they bust out laughing, and it doesn’t take me long to realize that they’re not laughing with me,” he says.

Vander Putten can laugh too--now. But he and other WCA members don’t laugh off the perils of crashing the college class barrier.


“From the day you arrive, you don’t know the rules,” says Chelsea Starr, a sociology lecturer at UC Irvine who as a child helped her mother clean houses at night. “Your parents haven’t been to college, let alone graduate school. They can’t tell you, ‘If you want an office, go find out who’s on the office space committee. If you want that grant, go find out who’s on the awards committee.’ ”

Big career moves can ride on the small talk of department receptions.

“One thing you never want to do is talk about what your parents did for a living unless they were professionals,” says Oldfield.

Peters only recently realized why she feels like falling apart at those department get-togethers: “Poor people, when we talk to each other, we sit down. We don’t stand with a wineglass and little plate of stuff trying to balance everything.”


So far, WCA has had five conferences, where members present papers, engage in scholarly discussions and then repair to a local diner--or barbecue pit--for the keynote banquet.

“There’s this ‘Oh, yeah’ feeling,” says Oldfield. “You don’t have to explain yourself. You don’t have those distant looks in people’s eyes.”

Like many on the list, Peters has “come out” to her students, drawing on her life to help teach sociology at Southampton College of Long Island University.

Peters’ father was a railroad worker; she became a welfare mother in the early 1970s after her first husband left her when she was five months’ pregnant with their first child. She later remarried and had two more children, one of whom died at 19 months from a rare heart ailment. Her second marriage also ended, and for a while she was incapacitated by a disability.


“If I talk about poverty, I know about welfare. I know that it’s not like the politicians and people would have us believe,” she says.

Through lessons learned the hard way, Peters is there to help students overcome the big hurdles. And she knows how to set a classy table.

Recently Peters presented a student who had overcome tremendous personal odds with a graduation gift of one napkin ring and a napkin to go in it. “I told her, when you get your PhD, you get the rest of the napkins,” she said.



Working Class Academics: