Writing about Writing: Author’s commentary on Servants in the House of the Masters: A Social Class Primer for Educators, Helping Professionals, and Others who want to Change the World (2007).
Isabel Allende allegedly said that you should never be a writer unless you can’t stand not to. This is what moved me to write my book, because I could not stand the thought of important ideas and information about social class suffocating in an increasingly dusty stack on my desk, their potential and power unrealized. Writing is a political act, a strategy, and a hope for redemption. Writers write for themselves, and sometimes for their readers, and in our profession (academe) we write for editors and peers, which is distinctly different. I’ll talk a little bit about each of these, and invite your comments.
When I began the research for my dissertation (which eventually became my book), I had no idea that it would indirectly be about me. After all, my experiences coming from po’ folk and the painful confrontations of class that I endured throughout my years of formal education represented an “n” of one. It wasn’t until I had interviewed about 25 people in a pilot study and the formal study that I recognized my story over and over, except it was coming from the mouths of others – and, of course, there were important differences in each person’s story. The themes and patterns I identified illuminated my own experience secondarily in ways that I would not likely have done alone. This enlightenment was gratifying and redemptive. My results meant that my research participants (and I) were not at fault for the slings and arrows that hand wounded them (and me) as they/we encountered the realities of class-based discrimination; despite society’s desire to blame poverty on the poor, it was all very clear that society held the keys to that cell block.
Having such an epiphany for myself, I became very motivated to share this with others who similarly were encountering class bias and might be thinking, “n of one… it must be me.” I presented on the topic around the country, and consistently used the feedback given to me to transform my writing from the scholarly tome into the user-friendly book that, hopefully, would be redemptive and illuminating for a future reader. In my doctoral studies I had learned that Margaret Mead was demeaned by her academic colleagues for writing articles for popular women’s magazines; she wanted to share her insights about gender and “coming of age” for a broader audience. Why not? She broke the rules of academe for a larger public good; I aspired to do the same and thus wrote my book at a layperson’s level, hoping for a broad readership rather than a narrowly circumscribed academic one.
I found that I would have to break more than one rule! I trotted my manuscript out to the usual suspects: the university presses, and others. I consistently received feedback saying in essence, “your writing is excellent, the topic is fascinating, but we don’t think it will sell.” Publishers increasingly adhere to a bottom line we can all understand: they are in business to make money, not to showcase superior writing on key topics. Simply stated, they didn’t think my book would make them enough money. After all, who cares about social class?! As I waited, and watched the dust thickening on my well-written, fascinating manuscript, my data-expiration clock ticked. I knew if I didn’t get it in print in a timely way, the data would be stale and the work not considered credible. So I transgressed a cardinal rule of the tenure-driven life: I self-published. This is a political act. I believed in my work, and I felt strongly that what I had written was good. I have read on a list serve populated by people like us (ie, working-class academics) disparaging remarks about those who self-publish; these utterances are delivered in tones rather like describing someone who is walking about with a piece of toilet paper stuck to their shoe. It’s dirty, in poor taste, perhaps classless. I beg to differ. Editorial boards are inherently biased towards writing which continues to privilege the myths of the culture regarding class. One of the first articles I wrote on the topic of social class, based on my dissertation research, was resoundingly rejected, and perhaps deservedly so, but not for the reasons given. What I objected to was the reviewer’s comment about my research, which indicated clearly that individuals from lower social-class backgrounds are discriminated against in access to higher education and upward mobility in careers: “That can’t possibly be true.” The reviewer was not only disrespecting me and my research, but my dissertation committee at a Research I institution. And, there was no avenue of appeal. If this power broker could reject my article in disbelief, how could I get the word out that the emperor (of class) had no clothes?
More than one reviewer on other articles complained that I was too “passionate” in my writing. How déclassé! Must we really look askance at someone who cares deeply about their work? How strange a land this place is, academe. I cannot be myself if I write? I should pretend to be dispassionate and totally objective (which, from my theoretical framework, is impossible), to sanitize my views, to pretend that I am not intimately involved with my topic? Do I really want to assimilate to the institutionalized and archaic norms of the oppressor? I think not. Rather than a dissociative fugue, I chose empowerment, a hard path, and one with financial and emotional stress. I chose to self-publish, knowing that I would be denigrated by some.
I know that many of my peers write and publish strategically, as is necessary to get tenured, to survive peer reviews, to gain higher faculty rank. I haven’t talked to anyone yet who writes to get rich; not in academe. In scholarly writing the parameters of what is acceptable are increasingly narrowly defined by format, style, and statistical sophistication. The language is often simultaneously stultifying and mystifying, as we exhibit our command of an exclusive vocabulary associated with our field(s). While I appreciate the idealism of Esperanto, as working-class academics aren’t we at least a bit horrified by secret-society decoder-ring-required lingo for our professions? How many readers are actually reading the articles, or the books, for innovative content that will shape their future efforts? And are we, as writers, writing for meaning and meaningfulness of our own? I find this kind of reading (and writing) happens less and less as our roles are more and more fraught with work loads reminiscent of our fathers’ (and mothers’) manual labor jobs, and each peer-reviewed journal’s trap-door gives way beneath our feet frequently and without compassion. And yet we are still expected to churn out the sterile stay-within-the-box publications, seek the increasingly scarce grants, keep riding that ivory tower tilt-a-whirl until we stumble off, disoriented and nauseated.
I invite your comments, feedback, thoughts on what I have written here, which is admittedly based on my subjective experience and reflections on writing an unpublishable book of substantive content about social class issues in our culture.
Signe M. Kastberg, Ph.D.