When Life Bites You In The Class: Around the World, in Oakland, and on Campus

Is “middle class” a useful appellation when it means such drastically different things in different places? We’re not even talking Pittsburgh vs. Brooklyn here, but, like, Los Angeles vs. Laos:

Middle class is as much a matter of perception as statistics — the number of Americans describing themselves as middle class has remained essentially unchanged in recent years even as their incomes and spending power have eroded. When the same term is used to describe an American household bringing in up to $100,000 per year (according to a recent poll; $250,000 if you’re Mitt Romney) and Laotians living on $2 per day (according to the Asian Development Bank), it may not be a very useful term.

It’s relative, in other words, dependent on context. It means you’re less well-off than the well-off and not as poor as the poor.

Sometimes it means that you’re a white girl in 1990s Oakland whose radical parents could live elsewhere but don’t. In that situation, you identify in key ways with your non-white classmates, neighbors, and fellow members of the local swim team — especially when it comes to trying to finally depose the fancy-pants country club team that shows up with their matching swim suits and their hubcap-size muffins and wins everything. In that case, you want what your team wants: to wrench victory from the soft hands of the enemy, even if only this once. But you also occasionally, guiltily yearn for the pop culture version of white adolescence, where everything is safe and clean, cute and funny:

there were no hollering neighbors, no mattresses dumped on the corner, no beat of the police helicopter’s wings. There was nothing that resembled the Flatlands. There were big houses surrounded by wide lawns, and immaculately clean schools with playground equipment and science labs. Even The Simpsons lived in a two-story house. … Their world seemed a lot nicer than my own. I wanted in. And I had an in. Because in all of these narratives, the thing most precious, protected and universally adored was the little white girl — little white girls who looked just like me. I had the blue eyes, the button nose, the Shirley Temple curls. Old women at the grocery store stopped to tell me how beautiful I was. The counter staff at the Merritt Bakery winked and gave me free cookies. I sensed that I was in possession of something prized — a white girlhood — and that a coveted place in the TV-perfect world was being held for me.

In the latest issue of Guernica, which is devoted entirely to unpacking questions of class, Lauren Quinn remembers back to being asked, and to asking herself, “Which Side Are You On, Girl?” Also of note in the issue: Rachel Riederer’s “The Teaching Class,” where Riederer states, “Teaching is no longer a middle-class job, and everyone paying tuition should care.”

I am an adjunct. I taught freshman composition at Columbia University for two years as a graduate student, then for a few semesters more as an adjunct after I finished my degree. I now tutor in a writing center in the City University of New York system. Many of my friends do this same kind of work at colleges around New York City, commuting from campus to campus, cobbling together more-than-full-time work out of multiple part-time jobs. We talk a lot about how to make adjuncting livable, comparing pay rates at different writing centers and English departments. We crowdsource answers to questions about how to go to the dentist, for example, since none of us has dental insurance — wait for a Groupon for a cleaning, or go to the student dentists at NYU for anything urgent. I do have health insurance at my current job, though I get an email a few times per year informing me that it may expire soon because negotiations between the union and the university over adjunct health insurance have stalled. This is mostly fine — my coverage has never actually been interrupted — but it is hard to swallow the notion that the university that employs me is constantly trying to get out of providing health insurance to teachers, particularly when it announces that it is giving our new chancellor an $18,000/month apartment for free.

This came up yesterday too: Labor (Profs) vs Management (Administration) At Colleges Heats Up. For how long will people consider it fair for the folks at the top of the pyramid to be paid vastly more than the peons at the bottom holding it up, especially when the peons are not fry cooks but PhDs?

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