Class, at Vanderbilt? Breaking the
Silence at an Elite Institution
By Katherine Fusco, lecturer in the English
department at Vanderbilt University
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.