Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Classism on Campus

The new Review of Higher Education (sub required) includes an intriguing article attempting to assess classism in academic settings by surveying 950 students at an elite college. It's a good idea, but I have some complaints. One is about the usual mode of academic writing. Instead of simply listing the questions asked of students and detailing what the answers were (which we never get), the paper provides a long list of correlations and factor analyses that I do not understand, nor do I believe that they tell us anything of use.

However, the 21 questions themselves are sometimes interesting, sometimes flawed. (There are more questions, which the researchers dropped from their analysis for reasons I still can't figure out. Also, because so few respondents ever said that anything happened to them often, the researchers simply reduced the study answers to "none" or a positive response. But one suspects that having five answers (four of them yes) rather than two to a question will lead to more positive responses.)

Overall, only 10% of the students answered "none" to all of the 21 questions about experiencing classism. However, some of the questions were rather dubious at proving "classism." For example, one asked, "told stories or jokes about people who are poor." But there's nothing wrong at all about telling stories about people who are poor. In fact, we should hope to have more of it.

Other questions are also dubious as evidence of class discrimination: "Did not put books on reserve for a class"; "encouraged you to purchase things you couldn't afford"; "you could not join an activity because your job hours consistently conflicted with the activity meetings/events"; "you could not afford social activities (e.g., events at the Fine Arts Center) because of the fees": and "you had to live in the dorms because you could not afford another housing option" (an odd question, because 'classism' by colleges is usually the reverse, compelling students to live in expensive dorms and banning them (for a year or two) from living off-campus in cheaper housing). It is true that colleges should pay attention to class issues, and try to help poorer students by reducing expenses whenever possible and providing financial aid. It would be interesting to know if someone who graduated from college 10 or 20 years ago would have similar answers about their college experience.

Only 6% of the students apparently answered yes to the question of whether they experienced discrimination or harassment from students or professors based on socio-economic class, a figure that the authors dismiss as underreporting common in harassment literature. But it seems clear that the language of harassment and discrimination doesn't really fit class in the same way as racism and sexism do. The biggest problem of classism seems to be reduceable to poverty, and how the lack of money makes things harder. But calling that "classism" seems less important than trying to help poorer students.

One interesting note: the study allowed the students to select "other" for gender, meaning transgender etc. individuals. 10 students (1%) did. One wonders if these are just some guys who like screwing around on a survey, or if they really fit the category. It would be interesting if gender questions start to include other in the future.

One final complaint: the study refers to the students as being from "Hilltop University." For a long time, I have been extremely annoyed at the tendency of academics everywhere to engage in pointless institutional anonymity. There is no conceivable reason why "Hilltop University" should remain unnamed. One presumes that it's Wesleyan University, where the researchers were from. But this kind of cover is just plain silly, and it's time for academics to stop this irritating practice.

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