Who's Classier?

June 01, 2005

Question (from Cheryl): I'm a teaching assistant at Rich Private Party U., where the decadent, spoiled undergrads make me want to puke. I worked two jobs to put myself through community college and now I feel more empathy for the janitors than for the pouty young people I'm supposed to teach. And, yes, I feel jealous of their privilege and the ease of their lives. Will I have to stifle those feelings to be a professor eventually?

Answer: How vexed it is, the subject of social class in the United States. There are Ph.D. adjuncts who earn below the poverty level, and Ph.D. mathematicians who dress like refugees -- while most Americans have trouble even defining what's meant by class. Income? Genes? Tacky or terrific taste? If a Rockefeller who teaches at Harvard buys a black-velvet Elvis painting ... (that sounds like the beginning of a bad joke; Ms. Mentor shudders).

In fact, rich Republicans are rare among professors, for a Ph.D. isn't considered a good investment. It takes twice as long to earn as a degree in law or business, and fewer than half the Ph.D.'s in English (the largest field) ever get tenure-track jobs.

But affluent adolescents -- call them "Trevor" and "Courtney" -- can happily cavort at Rich Private Party U. Since they'll be in the 20 percent of college seniors who don't have off-campus jobs, they'll have leisure time for tennis, for taste-testing beers from around the world, and for studying the works of Oprah and Dr. Phil. When they need to get a paper in, they'll pull all-nighters, fueled by expensive drugs.

Not so with community-college students, who, on average, are older and have family responsibilities. They have to sandwich school in before or after their full-time jobs -- which may be waitressing at Dot's Diner or scrubbing the toilets at Rich Private Party U.

No, it's not fair. And when the rich youngsters skip your "silly poetry" class for an impromptu sailing trip in Australia, you will feel like you've been smacked in the face by a wet fish. In your baser moments, you will chuckle over horrible scenarios: "Yachts That Turn on Their Owners. Next on Springer."

As for grades, it's no secret that students at pricey colleges mostly get A's. If Trevor doesn't get his A in economics, his parents may call up and rail at the professor, the department head, and the dean: "I'm paying $35,000 a year for my kid to go to your school. He deserves an A."

That's especially effective if Trevor's father is a major donor. According to Ms. Mentor's spies, the strong-arming parent is most common at "Potted Ivies "-- the institutions that the fun-loving, low-GPA rich attend if they don't get into the genuine Ivies. But even Harvard is easy on the elite: In 2001, 90 percent of seniors graduated with honors. Yale won't release grade information at all.

Entitlement breeds entitlement. The hard-working poor do sometimes go to Harvard -- but most often as janitors and cooks. Ms. Mentor sympathizes with envy, fury, and yearning for a revolution.

Still, you have the chance to funnel life-changing knowledge to rich students. Most have gone to good high schools, many are good readers, all have computers, and many have a nascent intellectual curiosity. You can assign them to read Michelle Tea's Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class (Seal Press, 2003) and Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (Metropolitan Books, 2001). You can point them toward doing research on difficult or unconventional questions ("Why are there beggars all over the world?")

Best of all, you may be able to persuade the professor in charge to include service learning. That means college credit for real-life work that benefits communities: sampling the water supply for contaminants, helping disabled people confront bureaucracies, building playgrounds and ramps. Students with cars could register voters and rescue battered women.

Service learning makes the professor in charge look good ("A town-gown partnership!"). It produces research data ("Hark! Oodles of questionnaires!"). And it appeals to the spirit of noblesse oblige ("We need to help those less fortunate."). Ms. Mentor believes that everyone can be taught, or shamed, into producing useful knowledge. Those who've seen real poverty before they join Dad's business firm or political dynasty are less likely to let babies die for lack of medical care. With any luck, your students' consciences will gnaw at them.

But will your righteous rage gnaw at you if you're the professor in charge of wealthy students? You probably won't have the chance, since rich and elite colleges hire only their own kind. Of the 27 tenured professors in Harvard's English department, for instance, 23 have Ivy League or European Ph.D.'s. Only two hold degrees from state universities.

You'll be hired at a lower prestige level, but your students will be more diverse, juggling school and jobs. They'll have goals and strategies, and you can mentor instead of fuming.

If Ms. Mentor were in charge, academe would be a thorough meritocracy, the one green place where lads and lassies from humble beginnings could rise to full professorships at the finest universities in the land, through pluck and intellectual might. But the United States actually has very little economic mobility: According to economist Gary Solon's research, only 1 or 2 percent of those born poor will ever become rich.

You're reaching the rich right now, spreading knowledge and the spirit of charity. There are also many rich and beautiful people encouraging activism (Cameron Diaz, P. Diddy, Angelina Jolie), and you can tell your students that it's cool to help out others.

In fact, it's more than cool. It's classy.

Question: I've always done my homework and gotten A's through 25 years of school, spent every second at my desk, taught herds of students, attended every meeting ever called, published half a hundred articles, and finally have tenure. Is it now safe to eat junk food, sign up for, and watch Desperate Housewives?

Answer: Yes.

SAGE READERS: Ms. Mentor is delighted to report that her two Ivy League correspondents, "Amanda" and "Gregory," have been awarded tenure at their Ivies. There is some justice in this world.

As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes queries, gossip, and rants, including comments on past columns and material for future ones on academic rituals and on disability. Ms. Mentor rarely answers letters personally, exhorts correspondents to use subject headings, and directs readers to her archive and her tome (below), as well as to the other delights on this site. Anonymity is guaranteed, pseudonyms are good, and identifying details are always omitted. If your office mate thinks a published letter is about him/her, then he/she must live with the consequences of his/her lively imagination.

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her Chronicle address is

Her views do not necessarily represent those of The Chronicle.

Ms. Mentor's Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia, by Emily Toth, can be ordered from the University of Pennsylvania Press by calling (800) 445-9880 or from either of the on-line booksellers below.  Barnes & Noble