The place I grew up—my idea of home—is located beyond the old windmills, tiny working-class cottages, and closed canals of my hometown. It is the nearby sound of white storks clattering their beaks, the purple blooming heath in the late Summer; the stringy fur of the native sheep, and the black silhouettes of bare trees in the weak light of Winter.
I. Place: The Life You Take With You
Let me begin with a confession: I never really thought that much about place and experience in relation to my own life until I read Yi-Fu Tuan. My childhood was surrounded by art and books, unknown people and places. But, growing up working class in one of my country’s agricultural provinces, my dreams for the future involved moving into one of the nearby flats and possibly a career at the local library. Secondary school and my (middle-class) peers opened my eyes to a world of possibilities—possibly in a different city. Forwarding to my second year as an undergrad, I did move to a different city (several times, in fact, although I don’t think this is unique to my own experience in academia). From growing up in the house I was born, I have moved a total of ten times in the past eight years. All in the name of my academic career, because I was certain I wanted to work with books and research, and I was certain every move would take me a step closer to the place where I could realise this dream. It’s not surprising we think this way. Not only do we see our lecturers live with yearly renewed contracts (or not), we’re all told we should be mobile for our careers (and we’re young and resilient, what does it matter?). This strange culture of precarity and mobility places young and hopeful academics in a unique position, one that I’m increasingly worried about. Because, focused on moving forwards, I never stopped to think about the places I took with me.
But how do you address these worries and invisible places? Somewhere between move number five and six, I started applying theory other than that from gender and queer studies to my life. Whilst writing about N. Scott Momaday’s novels and essays, my concept of place was formed and informed by Yi-Fu Tuan’s work, and how the places we occupy—those we have come to know, to learn, and to love—determine our way of experiencing them. And new spaces. One thing my reading of Tuan did not prepare me for is how you take these places or experiences with you, how they become a tangible weight you carry with you, and how at times this leaves you with a feeling that you are unable to occupy the new places you will navigate. To say it in a simple way: how much harder it will be to navigate these places and to feel like you belong, have a right to belong. In academia, we have started to address inequality in gender (too often only in the binary sense) and race; yet, along with disability, I feel like we don’t talk enough about class (and how all of these intersect). It’s difficult and often invisible. In the past, I have tried talking about this with both peers and superiors, but was met with silence or simply felt too embarrassed to continue. When people say that “they understand” does not mean they actually do, and we need to talk more openly about this so that eventually they will understand.
When I began thinking about writing this piece, I was looking for some academic framework to hide behind, but I could have easily started with my own experiences. Or perhaps not because “people tend to suppress that which they cannot express.” Also Tuan. I still turn to others when I want to talk about my experience as a working-class person in academia. It’s also the comfort that you’re not in this alone. Recently, I read through Dr. Michelle J. Deininger’s article on her own experience with (middle and higher) education whilst working class. Deininger’s story resonated with many, including myself. Despite similarities it is, of course, vastly different from my own experience and very much place-bound in the sense that it is incredibly specific to the UK. As for me, the system of education I experienced made it possible for me to attend the highest level of secondary education possible at the time. Despite my country’s apparent “social and economic mobility,” the feeling of not belonging holds strong when studying Latin and Greek at secondary school comes with extra school trips that you’re not sure you can afford. When, later, you’re struggling to scrape together your tuition fees and the anxiety won’t let you sleep at night. Or when, during your graduate degree, one of your fellow students (a white man, working on diversity), responds to the lecturer’s question that “well, of course, both his parents went to university.” Between you and me, reader, I still regret not taking that particular conversation further.
II. Space: The Opportunities We Can And Cannot Take
When I first started my PhD, I thought I would walk a very different trajectory and experience very different places to the ones I currently am. Some friends and family had realised just how badly this long and slow process had been affecting me—constantly adjusting my life, goals, and (lack of) funding to the slow bureaucracy of academic life—and had tried to make me stop before. It was only recently, after more than two years of working towards an “opportunity” that I had the nerve to call it off.
Of course, there’s a part of me that regrets calling it off and fears I made a mistake. This is also the part of me that still feels like every move will bring me closer to that final goal and at times weighs so heavy on my shoulders I forget how to breathe (this part is also known as a panic attack). But life loves irony, and for me the trick is to continue moving. Although perhaps not forwards, not to a different city for a while. I am not ready to leave academia, and I am still working on my research: I’ve had enough jobs to know that this is the work that makes me happy and feel like I am doing meaningful work. And therein lies the rub: doing meaningful work is a privilege, but this shouldn’t mean it’s only for the privileged few.
III. Place As Experience; Or, Growing Up Working Class in Academia
Being “first generation,” or not using a euphemism, being in academia whilst working class means you simultaneously occupy a place of extreme privilege and a less tangible place you can never quite leave behind. For me, it meant this:
You will have to move to new places and you will quite possibly fall in love with them. Still, the new spaces in-between mean you will be forced to miss birthdays, births, important milestones—and also last good-byes and funerals. When I moved to England to pursue my adolescent dream of studying literature in the UK, my great-aunt passed away and I wasn’t told until it was too late for me to attend the funeral. This was because the last-minute journey back home would have been too expensive. And, a little over a year ago, when my grandmother passed away after years of being ill, I had to make the decision to stay in Germany because I had just moved and invested my savings into my new house and life and could not afford the journey back home. I had already said goodbye to my grandmother years ago, she suffered from dementia and the disease had not made her kinder, but it will be a long time before I can forgive myself for not being there for the family she—and I—had left behind.
You will be confronted with your own economic precarity—and those of others—in unexpected ways. After I graduated, had no savings, and was looking for an in-between job before I could start my PhD, I was assaulted by the man who would have been my direct superior. While this was not in academic context, he was a professor of literature and only started touching me after he learnt that I also worked with literature. When we were alone, I could only think of how he had offered me a job and none of the other companies had called me back. Being penniless makes you vulnerable. Later, I did not dare call the police because “nothing bad had really happened” and the company in question taught language and culture classes to refugees, people who occupied a far more precarious position than I did. This was supposed to be a safe space for them. Could I live with the possibility of taking this away from them? The answer was no.
As with everything, it’s not all bad—there are new people to meet and places to experience and navigate. You will be granted chances you could have never imagined, growing up in your neighbourhood and planning for a future in the apartment block down the road. You will get to know people will inspire and reaffirm you; people you will like instantly, feeling like you have been friends for years (although there is also something more critical to be said about the brief and intense friendships we experience in academia). There will be new places to experience and that you will dare call your own. The accumulation and exchange of knowledge alone is worth it.
But more than that, we need to acknowledge that it’s not only exciting new places and people, and the influence that other part can have on how you experience academia, feelings of belonging, even your mental health. I’m writing about my own experience mostly because I want others to feel like they can do the same. Precarity in academia is not something we should take lightly, and it affects all of us differently. Of course, my own struggle with being in academia whilst working class is entangled with other problems that I have only just started to address. I’m also certain that I am not alone in this, which in turn gives me the courage, for the lack of a better word, to write about it. Because we need it: the opportunity and language to speak about these experiences. It’s easy to write essays about how you don’t belong in academia if you can’t handle the stress (when the stress is not equally divided amongst staff). What we should do is look a bit further and continue the conversation about how class, gender, race, and (dis)ability affect our lives and careers and how we can ensure that academia will not be for the privileged few.
For the time being, I’m still getting used to living here until I leave again. Despite wanting stability at this point in my life, there’s still an urge to move. At home, it currently feels like we’re stagnant, stuck in the middle of a cold and wet Winter, but the first snowdrops and crocuses have been spotted and I know the days are getting longer. I’m preparing for the seasons to come and will continue with my new-found appreciation and exploration of my home county. Where I used to think living here meant that I would never move forwards, I’m now using this time to the experience the place I grew up—the streams, the forests, and the heaths—in a different way. And that’s OK.
This piece is part of an ongoing series on #problemsofplace.