Book Review: 'Straddling Class in the Academy'

This article is part of NASFAA's occasional book review series, where members share their reflections on books, published within the past five years, on higher education themes of interest to financial aid professionals. The opinions offered and statements made do not imply endorsement by NASFAA or the authors' employers and do not guarantee the accuracy of information presented. Would you like to suggest a book for a future review? Email us at [email protected] with your recommendation.

In a book titled "Straddling Class in the Academy," authors Becky Martinez and Sonja Ardoin give a platform to 24 individuals from poor and working-class backgrounds (plus the two authors) to tell their stories and share their experiences. "Their narratives, along with the authors' analysis, help address the dearth of conversations and publications regarding class disparities in higher education," writes Sarah Eucalano, who read the book and shared her opinions of its content with NASFAA. A "major strength" of the book, Sarah adds, "is that the narratives not only provide humanizing examples of the hurdles and barriers poor and working-class people face in higher education, but they also include a range of potential solutions." What follows are Sarah's takeaways, thoughts, and reflections.

Sarah EucalanoReviewed by Sarah Eucalano, Financial Aid Counselor, Medical College of Wisconsin 

After graduating from an underfunded urban high school, I went on to attend my state's flagship public university. An avid runner, I immediately joined a running club at the university. At the first practice, I got paired with someone who spent the better part of our run complaining about her student teaching assignment. Unbeknownst to her, she was student teaching at my alma mater. "It's ridiculous," she vented to me. "They don't want to learn, they're disruptive. You have no idea."

Except I did have an idea. In a district where there weren't enough teachers to go around, 40 students in a classroom was the norm, as was a class that churned through three to four student teachers a year without oversight from an experienced teacher. I let her know I understood that this isn't the best environment in which to learn to teach, but one should not dismiss students who find themselves in these circumstances due to their status as poor or working-class and lack of privileges. (I admit I may have expressed myself less politely and calmly than I did here.)

Too often, it's the students from underserved backgrounds who are treated as the disruption rather than the systemic barriers and hurdles in their way. Poor and working-class identities are complex, and they look different based on a myriad of other intersectional identities people hold and the circumstances they're in. In "Straddling Class in the Academy," authors Becky Martinez and Sonja Ardoin give a platform to 24 individuals from poor and working-class backgrounds (plus the two authors) to tell their stories and share their experiences. The contributors are undergraduate and graduate students, higher education administrators, and tenured and non-tenured faculty members, and also include three individuals no longer working in postsecondary education. They vary in terms of their ethnicity, race, gender, religion, ability, and more, and nearly all identify as being or having been first-generation college students. Their narratives, along with the authors' analysis, help address the dearth of conversations and publications regarding class disparities in higher education.

A major strength of "Straddling Class in the Academy" is that the narratives not only provide humanizing examples of the hurdles and barriers poor and working-class people face in higher education, but they also include a range of potential solutions. In one narrative, Daniel Espiritu, an undergraduate student who identifies as working-class, suggests several ways higher education institutions can help working-class students "be as successful as they want to be," which include "free tutoring, critical reading and writing workshops where attendance is incentivized, and the addition of for-credit courses meant to help students develop critical thinking skills and examine their positionality in the academy and society."

Through the narratives, readers explore the different backgrounds, identities, and circumstances that contribute to individual class identities, which can often be missed if we do not look beyond the numbers. For example, Téa Wimer, an undergraduate student who identifies as poor, reflected, "Of course, social class is not just a financial issue; it is also about access to knowledge. Within the academy, we pretend that educating people is a burden we shouldn't have to bear, when in reality it is. We are gatekeepers of knowledge, and we decide who gets access to that knowledge."

As higher education administrators, how can we ensure that the processes, cultures, and assumptions engrained in our institutions evolve along with the demographics of the students we serve? In addition to the solutions proposed by the contributors, the authors use the final chapter of the book to offer strategies and ideas for institutions to "raise class consciousness and reduce classism to be more inclusive of students, administrators, and faculty from poor and working-class backgrounds."

 The stories in "Straddling Class in the Academy" underscore the importance of being the people who advocate and support programs for, as well as uplift, those from underserved backgrounds. Not one of the contributors to this compilation claimed they achieved their higher education goals and moved up in socioeconomic status because they worked harder or felt they were somehow more deserving than others. Instead, they pointed to teachers and school officials who had advocated for them. They mentioned support from programs like Upward Bound, free- and reduced-cost lunch/breakfast, federal Pell Grants, Federal Work-Study, TRIO programs, and Section 8 housing. Many of these individuals also attributed their rise to at least a little bit of luck and happenstance as well.

Another common thread expressed in the narratives is the sense that most higher education institutions were not established to serve people of the poor and working classes. This is something we, as financial aid administrators, need to confront as we try to address class disparities in higher education.

 Just as I tried to achieve in my response to my long-ago running partner, this book challenges readers to think differently about classism. "Straddling Class in the Academy" is a valuable read for anyone in higher education who would like to better understand the role class plays in students' experiences of navigating the higher education world. For me, this compilation and analysis of stories also delivered a powerful reminder of the courage many students needed — and still need — to occupy spaces in higher education that were not previously accessible to them.

"Straddling Class in the Academy: 26 Stories of Students, Administrators, and Faculty From Poor and Working-Class Backgrounds and Their Compelling Lessons for Higher Education Policy and Practice," by Becky Martinez and Sonja Ardoin. Stylus Publishing, 2019, pp. 240.

*****

Sarah Eucalano is a financial aid counselor at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

 

Publication Date: 8/22/2022


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