Wednesday, July 04, 2012

More on privilege

My previous post got far more comments than I expected, and evolved into a really interesting conversation about the ways in which privilege (or what Phoebe and commenter i. would prefer to call "advantages") works in the academy; thanks to all who participated. I didn't realize it would be so controversial to suggest that, even within the community of scholars, some people get at least mildly preferential treatment based on such things as the name on their Ph.D., the influence and connections of their dissertation director, the institution at which they work, and/or the nature of their employment (adjunct or lecturer/VAP, tenure-track or tenured).

To me, this is all self-evident, though it's important not to overstate the case or to conflate all forms of privilege as equivalent. It is certainly not true, at least in the academy as it currently exists, that all one needs is a degree from the right school or the right advisor to be put on the fast-track (or indeed any track) to success, and it's ridiculous to imply that someone with tenure at no-name public college has the same kind of power and influence as a scholar with tenure at an Ivy. But both of the latter have more power and influence than an adjunct or a grad student.

But whatever you choose to call these forms of professional privilege, I feel strongly that those of us who have them need to be cognizant of the fact. Most of us, I think, realize that our professional standing (whatever it may be) is partly the product of luck and not purely the result of our own intelligence and hard work; we may have worked damn hard, but we know that there are far more deserving candidates than get admitted to strong graduate programs or than get jobs--and it takes nothing away from our own achievements to acknowledge at least a little luck along the way.

However, we need to recognize that there are structural forms of privilege at work as well. Someone whose dissertation topic suddenly becomes hot just as she's going on the market is lucky, as is someone whose unrelated secondary specialization just happens to be something a particular department needs in addition to the primary specialization identified in their job ad. But those with a fancy Ph.D., or a well-connected advisor, or a tenure-track job, or tenure, are positioned to reap (which does not mean that they will reap!) advantages beyond what their work alone might get them. Saying that isn't saying their work has no merits, or that they haven't worked hard. It's just that they can get a hearing, or be taken more seriously, than those with less standing even when the latter may be equally smart and have done equally strong work.

I think that those of us with tenure are also privileged members of the profession, wherever we teach, and even though getting tenure should be even more obviously the result of hard work than getting into a fancy grad program or getting a tenure-track job in the first place. But even apart from the inequities in some tenure processes (those who get unjustly denied tenure or those who squeak through for dubious reasons), the term "privileged" applies here, because those who have it have the job security, and the professional standing, credibility, etc., to say and do things that people without tenure might think twice about. Tenure may be earned. But the advantages and protections it confers often go beyond what's earned, in the sense that not everyone who earns it gets it--and not everyone even gets the opportunity to earn it.

In acknowledging my own privileges I'm not apologizing for them, just as I don't apologize for my good luck. I'm proud of my hard work and I'm convinced that my work is also, generally, good work. But I wish to avoid the dual temptations both of thinking that everything I've gotten is purely the result of merit and of seeing as "privileged" only those who have the things I wish I did. I don't have every advantage, but I have many, and my successes have surely come just a little bit easier because of them.


Natori Moore said...

"But whatever you choose to call these forms of professional privilege, I feel strongly that those of us who have them need to be cognizant of the fact."

Brava, Flavia, for staying aware of the structural inequities and vagaries of a system, even when having "won" within its parameters. Justice smiles on you.

Belle said...

Absolutely! Thank you for addressing this.

Comrade Physioprof said...

Also, even the slightest advantage or piece of dumb luck that leads to a favorable outcome then compounds exponentially over the course of an academic career. For example, say you are in the right place at the right time to make particular scholarly advance that is perceived as important by your field. Now you have a reputation for doing important work, and so independently of the objective merits of your future work, it is likely to be viewed as more important than it would otherwise.

Canuck Down South said...

Two comments: 1) A friend of mine, a fellow graduate student at another institution, recently commented to me that those who finish with a PhD from my department have a reputation of being either "really stubborn or really smart," and I had better make sure I was perceived as being the latter rather than the former when I went on the job market. I didn't entirely know what that meant at the time, but this conversation has helped to clarify some of it for me.

2) One "bit of luck" that I've become keenly aware of over the past few years is good mentoring--and I've become aware of it mainly because I never had it, for a variety of reasons (ie., went to a large undergraduate institution, etc.). That has meant that I got to graduate school without really knowing what I could and couldn't expect from an adviser, or even how to behave as an advisee, because I'd never had an adviser before--yet I look around and see people who've had a variety of mentors dating back, perhaps, to early undergraduate years who made sure they were in the running for fellowships, grants, early publication, admission to highly-sought-after programs, etc. What I'm trying to say here is that a certain amount of "luck" can be manufactured by someone _other_ than the lucky mentee. Obviously that's not quite the same as the kinds of privilege/advantage you've been discussing here, but it plays an important role--frequently how good a mentor is, how early one finds a good mentor,and how willing that person is be an advocate for a mentee, is pretty much a matter of luck.

Phoebe said...

I like your overall point, and want to clarify my own position. I, at least, don't think it's "controversial to suggest that, even within the community of scholars, some people get at least mildly preferential treatment based on such things as the name on their Ph.D [...]." Of course if you have an Ivy or similar anywhere on your CV, or worked with the right person, etc., this will help for years to come. And it is important to see how privilege early on (what might have been what got someone on the path toward later success. (A feeder boarding school into a well-known college, there to a top grad program, etc.) Privilege - as opposed to mere advantage - absolutely enters into it, both for those who enter academia as the children of one or two famous (or even non-famous) profs in the same area, and for those who merely already come in seeming UMC and knowing how to seem at whichever wine-and-cheese function.

My point was, and is, that unearned advantage is a different beast than what you get if you work hard, are talented, and whichever line on the CV that got you gets you more in the future. It's difficult to tell which is which in terms of other people, but you can know this about yourself, and I think it should inform how we acknowledge-not-apologize-for our own situations, whatever they may be.

Sisyphus said...

I was hanging out with a working-class grad student colleague one time, discussing various scholars, and he said in reference to someone, "yeah, he worked hard, but never had it hard."

And I thought about the stories he had told me about having spam and cheerios for dinner and having a candle as the only light the last few nights of the month because they can't pay the electric bill until payday and thought, yeah, that describes me. It's not like I didn't work my ass off to finish high school and get into college; it's just that I didn't spend my hard work dealing with the essentials-to-live shit.

Sitting here as a graduate from a middle-of-the-road public PhD program, I don't think that scholars from the elite private programs aren't working their asses off, but their work goes further and gets different payoffs in terms of recognition and respect, and they have the time and freedom to put that work towards different goals than someone who has to deal with heavy teaching, or inconsistent funding, or teaching themselves the unspoken norms of the profession, or making their own academic connections.

And yeah, that's privilege. (this has totally helped me understand upper-class resentment: I think Americans use the term "privileged" as a synonym with "lazy," and most of the upper-class people they know work incredibly hard at what they do ... within the comfort of their privileged class position.)

Anonymous said...

So what's next after recognizing that your job is supported by exploitation. Because hearing tenure track or tenured folk talk about their awareness of their privilege in the system never did make me feel any better when I was an adjunct.

Flavia said...

CPP: yes, absolutely. Advantages, whether earned or unearned or a mixture, compound over time. It's not that this is always "unfair," but privilege has a way of obscuring the way other people live. And to some degree this is true even for those who came up hard but haven't lived hard for 20 or 30 years.

Phoebe: thanks for the clarification!

Sisyphus: yes, absolutely. Most of us are privileged compared to someone else, and while that shouldn't make us feel bad, insofar as there's no way to renounce your class position or various other advantages, esp. when they're established so far in the past, it's a useful check on our own resentments of those with better fortune.

Anastasia: the point isn't to make anyone "feel better." To me, recognizing that there are forms of structural privilege that most of us benefit from is a check on two things: 1) resentment of those whom we think have it easier than we ourselves, and 2) the belief that everything we've earned has been solely earned.

You're right (of course!) that such recognitions aren't sufficient to change anything about academia's structures of inequity and exploitation. But it's surely a necessary first condition, and not everyone has even reached that condition.

Flavia said...

Oh, and Canuck:

Yeah, mentoring. I sure never got any one-on-one mentoring, either as an undergrad, a grad student, or really as a junior faculty member--and I hope to repay all of what I didn't get with others.

But this too is a place where a fancy degree program comes in handy: my peers and I all had access to the same opportunities (for such things as summer funding, travel grants, archival workshops, etc.), and we were all kept generally in the loop about these things, and the program was small enough that we could see what other people were doing, and when, and learn what we ought to be doing ourselves. I didn't know enough to be grateful for those things then, but I do now: with such opportunities, it doesn't matter if, like me, one isn't a favored child or perceived as a rising star. That kind of access and scholarly acculturation is part of what I mean by privilege.

Bardiac said...

These posts and discussions have been really interesting! But also a bit uncomfortable. It's easier when I feel privileged to acknowledge it without sounding braggy, than when I don't, to acknowledge that without sounding whiny.

I think the "to do" answer needs to include being aware of privilege and being aware that one might be supporting it or not. When it comes time to admit or fund potential grad students, does one favor Ivy students? Or does one look at people from less privileged undergrad programs and favor that background?

And for hiring? Does one automatically give an Ivy grad a second or third look, or does one look at the person with a community college on the CV and think about what that person might bring to the community that's different?

What about fellowships and grants? The same things apply, it seems.

Flavia said...


It's easier when I feel privileged to acknowledge it without sounding braggy, than when I don't, to acknowledge that without sounding whiny.

This is, as the kids write in the margins of their books, SO TRUE.

And yes, I think the first step is to try to read, really read, the applications of all candidates, esp. such things as writing samples, and not to "outsource" those judgements by assuming that the doctoral institution, advisor, or current place of employment are adequate proxies for intelligence and promise.

I understand that it can be hard to find the time to do that (I've never yet been on a hiring committee, so I'm partly projecting), or to feel competent to judge in a field outside one's own. But surely one can at least be skeptical of one's own knee-jerk assumptions, and try to counter them.

Anonymous said...

A slightly off-topic reply that goes strictly to the question of hiring. My large and fairly well-regarded R1 English department went through a big hiring spurt in the 2000's, in between recessions. Only 15% of those hired into tenure-track jobs in that decade had Ivy League PhDs. Having served on many, many search committees, I can say from experience that an Ivy grad does not automatically get a second or third look. If Ms. or Mr. Ivy's dissertation/book project is boring, no one cares where the PhD was from or who the diss director was. Not in my department, anyway. Granted, I think this attitude has changed over time, and ours is a young department. Younger faculty know that the talent can come from anywhere, and once you have a preponderance of non-Ivy faculty, search committees tend to be less snotty about such things.

EngLitProf said...

A few comments, and I’m sorry for the length.

1. Flavia, it seems to me that a hiring department must “outsource” evaluation of job applicants to a large extent. I agree that the most direct evidence of the candidate’s merits is the writing sample, but even in our specialized fields we need assistance judging the importance of the work, and, as you recognize, we cannot read as many samples as we have applicants. (Tip from a former colleague of mine: compare the letters of recommendation with the candidate’s summary and writing sample. The illumination increases geometrically.) The real issue, I think, is not the difference between “inside” and “outside.” After all, we are outsourcing part of our judgment when we are impressed by the applicant’s publication record, which may be the clearest indicator of his or her promise, but one reason the publications are so valuable is that the outside authorities to whom we appeal (referees, editorial boards) are more disinterested than the candidate’s recommenders are.

2. Frankly, I don’t see a problem in using facts like “doctoral institution, advisor, or current place of employment” as “adequate proxies for intelligence and promise,” as long as (a) they are treated as indicators rather than substitutes (that is, not as “proxies” in the strict sense); (b) they are not thought to constitute sufficient evidence, though each of them individually makes an “adequate” contribution to decisions; and (c) “intelligence” means intelligent writing, intelligent teaching, and intelligent something, rather than some mysterious undefinable essence. We all recognize that a prestigious degree cannot rescue bad work, and we can all agree with Anonymous’s observation that “Talent can come from anywhere,” but I’m not sure how much these truisms teach. Weak work should doom a candidate, but I don’t know if anyone seriously claims that many people get hired purely because they have Ph.D.’s from Chicago, worked with Professor Famous, and taught for a year at Famous Liberal Arts College.

While talent can come from anywhere, it tends to congregate in certain places, and certain places do a better job of developing it. When I have served on search committees and gone through the 200+ applications, I have been struck by how strong the correlation was between the reputed quality of the Ph.D. program and the quality of the student’s work. The big difference was the originality and interest of the work: students from lower-ranked programs often came up with dissertations that were old hat. Someone I know was admitted to several decent Ph.D. programs but went to an weak one simply to be near his wife. His program trained him poorly, and it turned out that the reason his wife was attached to the location was that her boyfriend lived there. (Somewhere in here lies a lesson.) His is the kind of story that make us look twice at the advantages attached to pedigree: the name of the institution on his CV is misleading, and he cannot explain it away (would you tell that story?). But there are two problems. First, when faculty read applicants’ dossiers, they cannot distinguish him from someone who could only get into the weak program. Second, and more important, his program did not train him as well as a stronger program would have: he is not the teacher or scholar he would have been if he had gone elsewhere. Yes, look for signs that an applicant transcends his or her Ph.D. institution—good publications? strong recommendations, preferably some from scholars outside his doctoral department? But the superficial markers of our training must matter.

EngLitProf said...

Sorry—second installment.

3. Bardiac, I don’t understand your contrast between the “Ivy grad” and “the person with a community college on the CV.” For one thing, this is like contrasting blue-eyed people with left-handed people. One of my friends from my top-flight Ph.D. program, located at an Ivy League university, spent his/her first two undergraduate years at a community college. When I think about what this person had to offer departments, I don’t see why they should have valued his/her community college experience because there is something “that person might bring to the community that’s different.” Even if we were to decide to pursue diversity of class origins, search committees lack the information they would need to do this: they cannot tell from a candidate’s CV if a person with a B.A. from Brown was born to money or had to scrounge for clothes.

5. Again, why why why do people use the eight universities that belong to the Ivy League as metonymy for the most highly-ranked Ph.D. programs?

Flavia said...


I'll start with your last point. Personally, I rarely use the term "Ivy" in a generic way, preferring "fancy program"--which can mean, I suppose, whatever you think it should mean.

But my understanding of the way that other people use that term, and the way I'd defend its relevance in this discussion, is twofold:

1) Obviously, most people do not use "Ivy" to mean literally and exclusively those eight schools,

2) but I think they do mean schools like those eight, which may have all kinds of prestige associations that aren't necessarily about the specific strengths of a specific department, much less the specific subfield in that specific department.

So what I hear Bardiac and Anon saying--and what I agree with their saying if I'm understanding them right--is not that there's anything wrong with a hiring committee being disproportionately interested in candidates coming out of, let's say, top-25 programs-as-ranked-within-the-candidates'-particular-subfields. The problem is with hiring committees or department members who hear certain institutional names and have prestige associations that they think outweigh other considerations, and that often aren't even reflective of the current strengths of a given department.

Flavia said...

And that's what I mean by "fancy," too, FWIW: not top, although the ones I'm thinking of tend to be at least among the top programs, if not always top-5. I mean rich, private schools whose reputation is partly about their reputation as an undergraduate institution and/or some other kind of mystique.

Susan said...

It's fascinating reading this thread, which I do both as someone *very* privileged now (R1 job, along with Ivy BA and Ph.D.). But I'm 30 years post-Ph.D., and I didn't get tenure at a "minor elite" SLAC, then spent 20 years in an institution that didn't give tenure, teaching 11 months. Because my husband was a famous scholar in my field, for many years it was assumed that things came to me because of him.

So I get the balance between luck and hard work. And going from a one year contract to being a tenured full professor allowed me to see the impact of privilege more clearly than for those whose careers are more "normal" (for lack of a better term). The privileges of tenure did not come gradually, but hit me in the face. As a result I don't take them for granted.

So one of my questions has to do with how long certain "benefits" persist. I don't think it helped me get my current job that my BA and Ph.D. were from "fancy" programs. I have enough of a track record that I'm judged by what I've done, not where I went to school. I think that there are consequences still,though. First, I come across as carrying the class of those institutions. Explaining what that means would be hard, but I know I come across as more "upper class" than my actual class background would suggest. The second is less concrete, but has to do with trying to provide my students at a growing public university with something like theethos and atmosphere of the elite college experience.

I'd add that sometimes, when hiring young colleagues, "fancy" backgrounds can backfire, when applicants suggest complete ignorance of our not privileged, not elite students.

squadratomagico said...

I'm just piping up to note that my experience as a screener for a major dissertation grant organization comports very well with that of EnglishLitProf, especially this point: "While talent can come from anywhere, it tends to congregate in certain places, and certain places do a better job of developing it..." I was amazed at just how wide the spectrum of abilities, preparation, and creativity was, when reviewing the applications, and how well the ends of that spectrum aligned with general perceptions of better/worse programs in my field. Moreover, certain institutions clearly had a sort of style: they trained their students to think and to write in a certain way, and the type of topics that came in from one top place were often different than the ones that came in from another.

On the other hand, it was not uncommon to receive applications that were, as EnglishLitProf states, not very new or groundbreaking from programs at the other end of the spectrum. Sometimes lesser-ranked applicants would lack the preparation they needed; or their descriptions were unclear (or sometimes half the length allowed, which always made me feel like they didn't have much to say); or they seemed unaware that the field had moved on from where they were.

The alignment was not absolute, of course: I sometimes reviewed fantastic applications from programs with little visibility in the field. But the reverse was seldom true: even the bad applications from top programs were still pretty good. They might not always have been absolutely the cream of the crop, but applications from the top places were almost never stinkers.

Talent can be anywhere; native intelligence IS everywhere. But a great deal of what we do is the product of a very precise kind of training, and some places have the resources, the libraries, the financial support, the departmental culture, and (not least) the faculty numbers to do that better than other places. You can buck the odds, but the odds are still there.

Comrade Physioprof said...

Someone I know was admitted to several decent Ph.D. programs but went to an weak one simply to be near his wife. His program trained him poorly, and it turned out that the reason his wife was attached to the location was that her boyfriend lived there.


Flavia said...


Thanks for sharing your perspective. And I think you're absolutely right about this: "I come across as carrying the class of those institutions." That's a nice phrasing of something that I was trying to get at in my first post, and the thing that makes me impatient with people (politicians, whoever) who insist that they're of the people when they've been of the elite for decades. Our early experiences shape us profoundly, no doubt. But privilege assimilates us even when we wish to deny that it does!

Anonymous said...

"So what I hear Bardiac and Anon saying--and what I agree with their saying if I'm understanding them right--is not that there's anything wrong with a hiring committee being disproportionately interested in candidates coming out of, let's say, top-25 programs-as-ranked-within-the-candidates'-particular-subfields. The problem is with hiring committees or department members who hear certain institutional names and have prestige associations that they think outweigh other considerations, and that often aren't even reflective of the current strengths of a given department."

That's exactly what I meant, Flavia. I also meant to emphasize that my own department does not hire based on those prestige associations. Our recent hires include many candidates from top 10 programs, but also candidates from departments far deeper into the rankings. A department's overall ranking does not determine strength in a subfield, as you wisely point out. Often a candidate who is working with a dynamo professor at a not-quite-so-dynamo program turns out to be extremely well trained and really competitive. As well, candidates from not-the-top-10 programs often have far more teaching experience and expertise. Any hiring department that does not realize these salient facts are missing out on great candidates.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the editing error: that should be "Any hiring department that does not realize these salient facts IS missing out on great candidates."

i said...

My sense from following both the previous post and just having read this one is that part of what makes this conversation so rich is the way that wealth, class and merit are muddled together in the kinds of words we use to discuss success in the academy, and indeed, the ways that many American elite universities deliberately blur the lines between these.

Still, I do want to preserve "priviledge" for advantages one is born with, and am glad you, Flavia, linked to Phoebe's smart post on the topic. Like Phoebe, I don't think it's at all controversial to suggest that the PhD pedigree or the name of the advisor will have disproportionate effects. From where I'm sitting, however, I find your insistence that we "need to be cognizant of the fact" commendable, but comparatively unnecessary. I just don't think we're talking about the same kind of beast as, say, a white man who doesn't understand the ways his skin colour determines how others treat him, or a rich and well-connected woman who doesn't understand the jump start she got in life, and that others didn't get it. I don't even think it's the same as a member of the middle class who subscribes to a meritocratic outlook on life, but doesn't realise that while they were not rich, they had a certain kind of upbringing and stability that enabled them to do well even in purely meritocratic contests. In what sense? The kind of advantages granted by fancy degrees (that's a term I do like) and all their appurtenances are not hidden, like ideology, but very much obvious. We don't need to be cognizant of them. We knew about them all along, and that's exactly why we wanted them. Even my grad school classmates who had gone to elite schools all along didn't seem to be ignorant of the advantages granted by elite schools.

In fact, let me go a step further. It's not those of "us" who went to fancy programs who need to be cognizant of their advantages. We know all about them. That's why we went there, and if we were at all paying attention, we noticed how nicely the deck is stacked at a fancy school. No, it's those of us who didn't go to fancy programs, or weren't planning to, who need to know how advantageous they really are. I was struck by your discussion in one of the comments of the kinds of opportunities available at INRU. Part of what was so shocking for me in going from my excellent but huge and anonymous public university to INRU was seeing how many wonderful things were presented to INRU students on a silver platter. Just there for the taking. I couldn't believe it! I did my undergrad at a place that was academically as strong, and often more rigorous, than INRU. Moreover, you could do just about anything if you put your mind to it and pursued it. But that's just the thing -- you had to be the kind of person who knew what she wanted to do, figured out the bureaucratic channels to get it done, and then did a lot of legwork to make it happen. While I know that many INRU students are those kinds of people, the point is that they don't have to be. So much is just, well, offered to them. You want to go travel somewhere? Here's an informational fair about it, and here's a scholarship to do it. You want to put together your own random project? Here, let us throw some more money at you. Oh, and by the way, everyone around you is doing the following list of brilliant things, so you might as well too. In case you forgot anything, the professor who is personally advising you will remind you of what you missed.

i said...

[cont] The feeling -- and the reality -- that opportunities are there for the taking is something that's instilled in fancy American schools. On the one hand, I find it a bit uncanny. (Sometimes, even gross: a current INRU student whom I've never met recently wrote me asking for a donation to fund her summer study abroad, in a letter that claimed a job wouldn't pay for the entire cost. So, apparently, she decided not to get a job at all. I refrained from writing back that I funded all my undergraduate extracurriculars through jobs, and didn't do lots of exciting things because I couldn't pay for them. Stupid me. I should have asked strangers for money.) On the other hand, it's also wildly useful to have an attitude that you can have just about the whole world if you reach your dainty fingers out for it. And, moreover, to have this assumption backed up by a machinery of prestige carefully calibrated to maintain and increase its own cultural capital.

This is what I wish I'd known as a high school student, when I reasoned that my excellent public school was just as good as elite American programs and didn't apply to the latter at all. (I was only half right.) And it's what hard-working, brilliant undergrads need to know when they're applying for grad school. Yes, you can be hard working and brilliant anywhere, but you might as well go to an institution that magnifies the results of your work. But Flavia, I don't think that's something people with fancy degrees need to recognize. It's something those who don't (yet) have fancy degrees need to know.

i said...

I'm starting to be embarrassed by my own long posts -- please, everybody, take this not as a sign of trying to bully everyone, but of a new mother whose child is finally sleeping for a few hours in a row but is too tired to do anything productive with her time. But let me be permitted a final comment:

There's a kind of logical inconsistency in, first, claiming that people who go to elite institutions get advantages that go beyond what they have earned through talent and work, and second, implying that all scholars with a particular mark of achievement/priviledge/advantage (say, the fancy degree, or the R1 job, or tenure) need to go through the same process of introspection and acknowledgement of the disproportionate success they've enjoyed.

Look, if you accept the first claim -- which I do -- then you believe that going to an elite high school makes you more likely to go to a fancy college for undergrad, and thus more likely to get a fancy PhD with a fancy advisor, and so on through an entire career. And as far as I've been able to observe at my early career level, that's true.

But by the same token, that means that anyone who jumps into the "fancy" career track at some point, say, later than others, has also overcome greater odds to do so. In practical terms, when I saw how many of the people offered admission to our PhD program went to the same handful of schools, year after year, I knew that those students coming from public universities (excepting Berkeley), or from not-utterly-top-elite private schools, had had to fight extra hard to get in the door.

I'm sure this story could be told at many points. The student from a weak high school who gets into Princeton has done something very different than the Choate grad. The advantages she gets out of Princeton are, if you will, less disproportionate to her efforts. Same goes for the person with the unfancy PhD who gets a fancy job. Yes, the fancy job will give him a leg up when he applies for fellowships to get time for research, but he came to that job in a different way than the Stanford PhD, even if the Stanford PhD worked very hard.

The point is, it's very hard to tell from the outside when somebody entered a fancy track. (Again echoing Phoebe.) I know a number of people whose CVs read like guides to the most elite schools in the world, but who come from extremely modest family circumstances. I'm not really interested in reminding those people that they're now getting some kind of disproportionate advantage, because they already overcame a disproportionate disadvantage to be where they are, even if they did so when they were 14, or 18, or 22 years old. In fact, due to the prejudicial way elite institutions tend to select for elite graduates, even people who were tied to very strong but not fancy schools before entering an elite track were at a disadvantage trying to break in. (So many are the excellent schools I never saw represented on our admissions list...)

There is only one group of people who had disproportionate advantages all along, and that's those people who were in fancy schools from day 1, and I'd like to suggest that at that point, it's not so much the elite institutions, but the wealth and class and connections of the family that we're pointing to... in other words, something closer to born priviledge.

Flavia said...

i., I adore you, but I fail to see why it's so objectionable to suggest that those who have advantages recognize those advantages, and have a bit of (good-natured, not self-abasing) modesty about them. No one is saying that anyone should be engaging in self-flagellation. No one is saying that all advantages are equal, or that the person who has been among the elite for only 20 years is as privileged as the person who has been among the elite for his or her entire life. But your defenses of the moderately-advantaged are starting to sound more and more, well, defensive.

It sounds like you're saying that no one who has ever worked hard to overcome any disadvantage can ever truly be considered advantaged. And I'm sorry, but that's just ludicrous. Someone who grew up poor but is now a millionaire DOES HAVE MATERIAL ADVANTAGES (and probably non-material ones) over most of the population.

i said...

Flavia, I don't think it's objectionable -- I just don't see the point. But here's the thing, I haven't really met too many academics who seem to think that everything they've gotten was 100% the result of their own brilliance and hard work. I'm totally open to the possibility that those people exist, and need a healthy reminder that they didn't, say, get their job because they were the single best candidate in the world. But what I'm more familiar with are people who suffer from impostor syndrome despite what their CV might seem to show about them, and despite the able performance of self-assuredness they can put on in a professional setting.

Mmm... I guess I'd like to stress that I'm not against pointing out priviledge/advantages/pickyoursubstantive, but in differentiating between ones we are born with, and thus more likely to forget, and ones we are not born with and are more likely to notice in their presence. While I don't forget that I'm white, I know I don't really know what that means to the way my life has worked out. I'm an immigrant, but from Europe, so there is a lot of prejudice I haven't had to face in my life that a fellow immigrant from another continent probably would have, at least in the latter half of the twentieth century. And while middle class, I came from a family that valued and supervised my education, which has also given me enormous advantages. I consider these to be much more meaningful than the fact that I went to INRU for grad school. Why? Because aside from having absolutely no responsibility for bringing them about, it's so much harder for me even to see their effects.

If were talking about advantages, of course someone who becomes rich has plenty of them, and of course there's a snowball effect. It's just hard to tell from the outside what their story is, and I'm not fond of blanket statements that assume a common "we" position for people who may have quite different backgrounds. If we're talking about priviledge, I think it's a worthwhile, though difficult, undertaking to try and recognize the role played by factors outside our control in our own happiness, success, even in the workings of our luck. That's why I want to keep the specificity of that word.

But what do we actually do with the complex ways that advantages accrue to different individuals through luck and merit? When it comes to inborn priviledge, many in our society believe in trying to compensate for its absence through policy. After almost a decade in the US, I've come to occupy this position myself, at least after seeing how entrenched and unquestioned affirmative action for stupid rich kids is. (Might as well even the field a little.) But unless you want a total and absolute leveling of the field at every moment of selection -- leave the PhD off the CV, and leave the journal names off too since your advisor knew someone on the editorial board -- the merit-luck thing is too complex to really deal with, and so leaves us weakly "acknowledging" that some of the goodies we got in life were unfair, but not really doing anything about it.

Phoebe said...

Dipping a toe back in here...


I agree that modesty never hurts. While elite affiliations shouldn't be apologized for, there is also a shouting-from-the-rooftops approach, one that - i., this addresses your point - exists alongside impostor syndrome, albeit generally in different individuals.

But I think a problem with discussing "privilege" as opposed to luck/advantage is that inevitably the word "defensive" comes up, as though the only possible reason one might have for not wanting to call whichever phenomenon "privilege" is that one has unchecked privilege one's self. Which isn't the case - it's entirely possible to come from privilege and own this and to think there's something wrong with calling your scholarship classmates at Exeter "privileged" because they too had the privilege to attend. I'm plenty aware of the advantages I've had (not infinite, and not particularly relevant to academia, but forms of privilege all the same) and those others I know have not had, which is precisely what makes me not wish to label as "privilege" those whose advantage is largely earned.

As for what one calls a self-made billionaire, why not "rich"? Why not reserve "privileged" for describing this person's offspring? I agree that it's silly and politician-y whenever someone who's a billionaire now claims folksy scrappiness, but in cases where "rich" isn't being denied, I'm not sure why "privilege" needs to be added on top of it.

scr said...


Flavia said...


That's awesome. Though I'll note that I dealt with that particular foolishness four years ago.