Saturday, May 31, 2014

But I DID go to school in New England!

L. V. Anderson has an article in Slate whose title pretty much sums up its content: "People Still Say They 'Went to College in Boston,' Meaning Harvard? Please Stop Doing This."

It's an article of interest to maybe 5% of the entire internet, but since I'm part of that 5%, I'll take the bait. Do I do this now? Of course not. But when I was 18 to 24 I did it plenty of times. If I was back home working a temp job for the summer or making small talk with a hairdresser or dental hygienist, then sure. I'd say I go to school "back east" or "in New England."

Anderson gives passing attention to the explanation that I'd have given for why I did this--that announcing your fancy-pants affiliation derails conversation, leads to awkwardness, and so forth--but she concludes that "it is not your job to anticipate and preemptively manage another person's emotional response to your biography. If you tell people you went to Harvard and they respond by freaking out, that reflects poorly on them." On the other hand, if you "withhold" the name of your college from someone else,

that reflects poorly on you--it implies that, on some level, you buy into the overblown mythos of Harvard and the presumption of Ivy League superiority. To fear the effects of the word "Harvard" is to take Harvard way too seriously. Once you understand that Harvard is just a college, and that getting into Harvard probably had more to do with your socioeconomic background and the luck of the draw. . . the cagey "college in Boston" response starts to sound very, very silly.

Now, if we're talking about recent college grads talking to other recent college grads--friends of friends at a party, new co-workers, whatever--and hiding the name of their alma mater, then I'd agree: it's douchey and patronizing to think that you're somehow protecting other people's self-esteem by not mentioning the name of a school you presume they didn't get into. But Anderson misunderstands the context in which most of this coyness occurs, or the kind of awkwardness that this evasiveness is meant to forestall. Most undergrads at fancy schools (like most PhDs) have had the experience of saying something neutral that mentions their educational background--only to receive some weird, sarcastic, and/or hostile response along the lines of, "Oooooh. Can I touch you?" or mock bows or genuflections. If that happens a few times (that is, if you get responses that assume you're bragging or are stuck-up just for answering a question truthfully) then you learn to avoid bringing it up if it's not strictly necessary.

Moreover, most people who are cagey about where they went to college know perfectly well that the rest of the world doesn't actually care where they went to school, even when it's asked as a direct question. Most people who ask the question are just making small talk and looking for a casual opportunity for connection. If all your aunt's friend from church really wants to know is whether you're an Oregon or Oregon State fan--or if you might have gone to the same school as her kid or her sister or her nephew--then saying you went to some far-away school with a fancy name changes the conversation she thought she were having.

Most of the time, when I said "back east," my interlocutors didn't ask "where?" They said, "oh wow, that's far." Or, "do you have family there, too?" Or "how do you like it? I hear it snows a lot." They were just making chit-chat, and I'd given them an answer that kept the conversation on that level. (And if they actually asked, "but what school?" I'd tell them.)

Reading Anderson's essay, though, made me realize that it's been a long time since I gave an evasive answer to a question about my educational background. Some of that is just pragmatic: I'm old enough that "where did you go to college?" is no longer the first (or second, or third) thing people ask. And I live in the East, and most of the people I meet are interested in higher education.

But most importantly: I'M A COLLEGE PROFESSOR. I HAVE A PH.D. If people are going to act weird about something in my educational history, it's my having a Ph.D. in English ("Oh, boy. So I guess I have to watch my grammar around you!")

Maybe the other thing that's changed is where I live and where I work. When someone in Cha-Cha City asks me what I do, and then asks me where I went to school, I'm pleased by both parts of the equation. I like my city and I like my job, and it's good for my neighbors to know that RU has highly-trained and well-credentialed faculty who are thrilled to be there. It reflects well on the community and the state university system. (And if they're the ones inclined to be snobbish--about where I teach, or about public colleges in general--then I'm happy enough to unsettle their presumptions.)


Anonymous said...

If I evaded for undergrad, it's because nobody at home has ever heard of where I went to school, or they think they've heard of it, but it's actually a different school with a similar name. But I've had that conversation (explaining no, it's not that other school) so many times that I can't imagine that I ever did evade the question.

Sometimes I'm reminded of one of my high school classmates at our fancy-pants magnet school saying, "You are an elitist, humble yourself." But it's kind of nice to be elite with respect to education.

Flavia said...


Right? This isn't a problem just for people who went to the biggest name-brand schools. If I'd gone to Oberlin or Wellesley or Bates (or Rice or Clark or GWU or anywhere more than 1,500 miles away that didn't have a nationally-recognized sports team), the average person in my hometown wouldn't have known what or where those schools were, either--and though the being-thought-a-snob part might not have been in effect, the getting-caught-in-an-annoying-conversation part would have been exactly the same.

I had a friend in high school who went away to a school in that category--very good, but not famous except to those who know something about colleges (or who are from the region in which the school is located)--and she was VERY INSISTENT about telling people where she went and why it was a great school that they should know about. I understand why she did it, and she had every right to be proud of her educational achievements. But she really hated it when we were out together and I evaded answering a question about where I went to college (because, you know, I didn't want to get into it with the department store cashier).

It always felt weird to be accused of snobbery because I wasn't interested in telling complete strangers that I went to some fancy-pants school.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I totally agree with what you say about most of this "where did you go to school?" conversations being about trying to find connection, and that naming a Big Ivy tends to derail that. If, as you say, the crowd is a bunch of academics or something similar, then naming the school opens the conversation up, rather than shuts it down.

Context is everything.

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

I'm a professor at a fancy asse elite private institution, and when people ask me where I work, I just fucken tell them. Haven't gotten a kick in the dick yet.

Flavia said...


But there are so many OTHER reasons they might want to kick you in the dick--so maybe they're just saving up. Amirite?

Comradde PhysioProffe said...


Anonymous said...

Our students do this a lot. They say, "I'm going to college in ___ (college town)" when it actually means "I'm going to THE COMMUNITY COLLEGE in _______ town." Very common.

CW said...

Students and Alumni of Grinnell College get to have the following conversation:

"Where do you go to college?"
"No, Grinnell, its in Iowa."
"Oh" (This "oh" is flat. You are a student at an obscure college in a hick state. They are not impressed.)

Only students at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa have it worse. (Cornell College was actually founded before Cornell University, but students of the Iowa institution get treated like impostors.)

Anonymous said...

My conversation goes almost identically to that, except instead of Grinnell/Cornell it's another pair of schools (and not Iowa-- but they've also never heard of the city I say it's in).

I got into Grinnell-- it's a good school!