Class, at Vanderbilt? Breaking the Silence at an Elite Institution

When I started teaching at Vanderbilt University, I noticed students who did not fit the mold of the privileged upper-class young adult my colleagues had told me to expect. These students had work-study jobs, athletic scholarships, and talent scholarships at the music school. Several told me they were struggling to fit in academically and socially for reasons ranging from unfamiliarity with professors’ cultural references to lack of access to the status markers valued by their peers.

As I watched these young adults struggle, I grew concerned about whether all students were getting a fair shot at college. With the help of Vanderbilt’s Writing Studio and Center for Teaching, I began researching how socioeconomic status affects college students. I found that working-class students deal with a range of issues that affect their academic success, including lower confidence in their writing, preferences for certain styles of instruction, and psychological pressures to “pass” as middle class.

Inspired by what I learned, I decided to focus my entry-level composition class on the topic of working-class studies. When I shared my plans with colleagues, they frequently responded with laughter: “Class, at Vanderbilt?” To be fair, I shared some of the concerns implicit in their derision. What, I wondered, would it mean to teach about class, and specifically about the working class, at an elite university like Vanderbilt? Although Vanderbilt actively pursues a diverse student body, many of our students come from wealthy backgrounds. Not surprisingly, these students find class differences easier to ignore than to address.

In my classroom, wealthier students in particular struggled with the idea that extreme wealth depends upon the exploitation of others. Occasionally these students would claim that working-class authors who had experienced upward mobility needed to “get over” their class history and move on. They would even complain that authors like bell hooks were stereotyping the rich. Although I found comments like these ridiculous, I also felt that I needed to allow them into the conversation to prevent shutting down communication. Middle-class students, too, sometimes found that class was a touchy subject as they realized the precariousness of their class positions and recognized their own participation in structures of inequality.

Even as I tried to combat this resistance, I was aware of the psychological toll our discussions took on my working-class students. These students frequently seemed frustrated with their classmates’ obliviousness, but they also seemed uncomfortable speaking up. One student talked with me privately about what she described as the carelessness of the wealthy. She mentioned that most of her classmates left their laptops lying around, but that she thought of hers as her “gold.” For working-class students like her, Vanderbilt is a golden opportunity made possible through scholarships funded by the university’s generous endowments. Yet even with this opportunity, many students struggle to gain access to the world their more affluent classmates occupy so comfortably.

Working-class students are as much a part of the Vanderbilt community as their more wealthy peers, but you wouldn’t know it from the reaction “Class, at Vanderbilt?” Implicit in this statement is both a willed blindness to the presence of students who do not fit the Vanderbilt profile and an erasure of their presence on campus. This silence in the face of class inequality communicates to students that if they have made it to an elite institution like Vanderbilt, they need not be concerned about class. Even more damagingly, it suggests to all students that only poor or working-class students need to think about socioeconomic inequity. But class inequality is a problem in which all are implicated—university students and professors included.

In response to these acts of erasure, I maintain that class must be part of the curriculum, especially at elite universities. I hope that my colleagues at all universities will learn to see teaching on class as a necessity, not an anomaly. 

Katherine Fusco is a lecturer in the English department at Vanderbilt University.

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