Originally published: 07.08.17
I’ve not felt this working class in a long time. For working class, read inferior/not up to standard/not our sort – delete as applicable.
Applying for a funded PhD is a fairly painful process at the best of times. Even applying for one that you self-fund is a trial. But without your own secret stash of cash, it can be a valuable lesson in class politics.
Class politics. You know, the social class system that doesn’t exist anymore because the Tories got rid of it and made us all equal? Or maybe it was New Labour. I forget now. I was probably cleaning toilets or doing some woman’s ironing for a shilling or something working class like that at the time. Busy making myself equal.
Anyway, why should applying for a PhD have anything to do with class politics I hear you ask.
Mek a brew, duck, an ah’ll tell ya..
When I did my undergrad degree in the 90’s I had a small son, and worked at Asda in the evenings. My degree results were unremarkable. Not because I wasn’t clever, but because I entered university on a wing and a prayer, with no real understanding of what was required of me and with no knowledge of academia. It took me until the third year to finally work out how I was supposed to write, and realised that no one actually gave a shit what I thought; just my ability to paraphrase someone else’s.
My marks were generally rubbish due to my ignorance of what academia required of me, a demanding small child and a night job in a supermarket.
I came out with a 2:1; marks dragged upwards by a generous final year history lecturer who quite liked my roughness and lack of polish.
I skipped out of university clutching my degree certificate and headed straight for Income Support (as it was then). No job, and no real hope of one. Apparently I had done the crappest degree in the history of degrees, and also, just getting a degree didn’t make you any better. What was I thinking?
Fast forward past a few years of Toys R Us, the aforementioned cleaning and ironing, bar work and other assorted shitty jobs, and I found myself working in Social Services, having blagged my way into a job by dint of knowing someone who knew someone who knew something. I turned out to be pretty good at the job and was encouraged to go on and do my social work training.
I duly applied, got an interview where I was stroppy and bolshy; a reaction to the rarefied atmosphere and surroundings of a red brick, and bafflingly, they offered me a place (I think it was recruit a poor person week).
My background really started to show here. I was in a university that prided itself on its calibre of students. Unlike my last uni (which was an ex-poly and felt like it) this was a “proper” uni. The lecturers were most certainly middle class. They spoke nicely, they enunciated and they had last worked in social care about a hundred years ago. I rapidly understood the concept of imposter syndrome and the impact of feeling so inferior made me argumentative and rude.
My accent stood out against the more modulated tones of my fellow students and I was considered “scary.”
Whilst I flew through my placements, and excelled in direct work, I floundered in the academic writing. Again.
I struggled to grasp what it was they wanted from me. They didn’t want the reality of working in child protection services. They wanted an obscure, parallel world of unlimited resources and effective interventions. I resisted and argued and challenged but eventually realised I was in the minority.
Against the odds, I passed. Just. My results weren’t great, but again, I’d worked all the way through the course and my son was still here, still needing food and shelter and general care. As kids do. I was negotiating a postgrad course with the school run, homework, activities and the general grinding hard work of motherhood.
I had struggled through two university experiences. Through sleepless nights, through the mopping up of sick the night before an essay was due in. Through the patronising comments of, “gosh. I don’t know how you manage” from fellow students and lecturers. Through the slight comedic value of talking with an accent and being outspoken. Through the precarious balancing act of being a mother, working in shit jobs and trying to get a university education that would take me and my son on to better things. Which it did. Eventually. After I’d crippled myself with debt, over stretched myself and worked endlessly to pull myself out of poverty. I was still ignorant of how the middle class world functions but you don’t know what you don’t know, and I thought I’d cracked it.
Fast forward again. Twenty years or so after my first degree I still feel working class at heart, but recognise that my career trajectory of social worker, lecturer, trainer, occasional writer has lifted me into the next class category. I was a home owner, civilly partnered, grown up son, decent car and money in the bank for a holiday.
Then disability struck. I lost my career, became dependant on benefits and lost my ability to use my brain effectively. I became a scrounger. The lowest of the low. No longer middle class, not even working class really. Just poor.
As I learned to manage my chronic illnesses, and slowly began to accept my limitations I realised that I could do something. I could do a PhD. I knew there was knowledge still in there, and I knew I could contribute something.
As I merrily applied for as many funded PhDs as I could; history, sociology, social work, criminology, I swiftly realised that I wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t enough to spend hours writing and rewriting a proposal until it read like an academic piece. It wasn’t enough to have years of work experience in a relevant field. It wasn’t enough to have ex colleagues and friends cheer me on and write brilliant references for me. What mattered, it appeared, were the grades I got for a degree I took in 1993. And no one gives a shit why my grades were a bit crap. No one’s interested in what it took for me to get through two degrees. No one gives a toss how bloody hard it was to keep going when I could easily have thrown the towel in and carried on working in a supermarket.
They don’t care because they don’t need to care.
All they want is your money. And if you haven’t got any money, then you need to be exceptional. First class. Distinction material.
And I’m none of those things. I’m average. Overwhelmingly so. Which is fine. I know I’m not a brilliant academic. But I do have something to say about class, about women, about motherhood, about inequality. But no one really wants to hear it because even at the age of almost 50, I’m still working class. Still below standard. Still not quite good enough. Still not fitting in. Still not quite there.
And that, my friends, is why social class never, ever goes away. You can polish up, and get your certificates but the minute you open your gob to tell them what you got for an essay on Narcissism you wrote in 1995 you’re sunk.
Opinionated Planet: a radical feminist blog by women for women on male violence, women-only spaces and sports