October 02, 2023

Creating a Class of Our Own: Reflections on First-Generation and Working-Class People in Sociology

By Colby R. King, Marisela Martinez-Cola (Assistant Professor, Morehouse College), Mary L. Scherer (Assistant Professor, Sam Houston State University), Robert Francis (Assistant Professor, Whitworth University), and Myron T. Strong

People from working-class and first-generation-to-college backgrounds have a lot to contribute to sociology and to our universities as students, instructors, and staff. The American Sociological Association’s (ASA) Task Force on First-Generation and Working-Class People in Sociology (FGWC) highlighted this in their report to ASA, which you can read here. (You can also see suggestions for how the report may be used in sociology courses here.)

In a special issue of Teaching Sociology, we worked as guest editors and discuss topics such as:  

(Click here to watch a webinar discussing these and other issues we recorded in July 2023.)

Our group of five guest co-editors come from diverse backgrounds and circumstances. Working together in building this special issue, we hope we demonstrated how those of us from diverse FGWC backgrounds have much to offer our colleagues, institutions, and discipline. Like so many sociologists, our experiences informed our sociological perspectives. As the five of us worked together on this project we shared our stories with each other.

Robert grew up in rural western Pennsylvania, and although he and his family thought of themselves as middle class, his family’s financial struggles led to them losing their house around the time he was completing his college degree. He describes enduring what Jonathan Sennett and Richard Cobb described as “hidden injuries of class,” often feeling out of place in middle class environments, including the private liberal arts college he attended. 

Like Robert, Myron grew up in a rural area, but Myron’s hometown was Eudora, Arkansas, which he describes as a town, like so many others, segregated by railroad tracks. Although Eudora presented him many social barriers, he also today feels fortunate to have grown up in a Black community that pushed and supported him.

Marisela is a proud Chicana born and raised in Battle Creek, Michigan. Her mother was born in Mexico and her father in Texas, and they had a 2nd and 8th grade education, respectively. Her father worked in a factory. Her mother worked first as a housekeeper then as a laundress. She shares a story about how when she was in college, a resident advisor conducted an icebreaker called “Cross the room if...”. The activity began with benign prompts about favorite pizza toppings, but also included prompts about family income. When activity caused her to reveal her family’s relatively low income, she remembers that someone asked, with a mixture of shock and pity, “How can you afford to go here?” Marisela explains how this activity reveals how it often feels to be FGWC in academia – everyone is on the other side of the room, and we are left trying to figure out how to get to the other side, while also questioning why we are trying to get there or if we even should.

Mary grew up on a farm in New York in a social environment where college-going was not necessarily expected. Nevertheless, she attended one of the country’s few “work colleges," knowing that campus employment would offset tuition costs. However, it didn’t provide money for other expenses (books, clothing, travel), so she took an off-campus job waiting tables on nights and weekends, unlike most of her peers. As a graduate student, she again found herself as an outlier among peers, working in restaurants and as a landscaper in addition to the allotted teaching and research assistantships. Her research interest turned to a nearby regional comprehensive university, whose access-focused mission and teaching emphasis she found created a college environment more conducive to FGWC student success.

Like Robert, Colby grew up in rural western Pennsylvania. Colby’s dad was a laborer in a steel mill, and his mother worked occasionally in retail and as a house cleaner. Naïve about the costs of college, he took on a path through college and graduate school in which he took on substantial student loan debt. Colby has worked for ten years as a professor and has twice been approved by peers for tenure and promotion. His annual salary, though, has never exceeded the balance of his student loan debt. Colby will tell you how he often felt that taking on that debt was, unfairly, the only way he could “cross the room,” as Marisela describes.

This is one of the challenges about being FGWC: your background comes with you (for better and worse), even when you make enough money to cross the room. In working on this project, Myron has shared that he came to see how none of our stories are ours alone. All five of us experience a sense of self-consciousness and displacement, driven by ongoing struggles with breakaway guilt, imposterism, class-cultural mismatch, and sense of belonging. While we have all found our footing and made our way in our careers, we each have a sense of displacement, or of not quite fully belonging, either in the world of our backgrounds or in the professional spaces we now inhabit. This is why we named the special issue of Teaching Sociology “A Class of Our Own.” It is our effort to create a space for all of us from FGWC backgrounds that supports and celebrates our contributions to sociology and higher education.


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