Recently I was having a perfectly lovely conversation about eyeglasses that ended on a weird note about ethics and money. I was at the largest conference in my field (the history of women), where I gave a paper and tried not to fangirl over historians I deeply admire. I was there by myself—no cadre of buddies—and spent one evening chatting with friends of a friend, which was when this conversation came up.
Class Stratification in Full-Time Academia
Academia (the phrase refers to all colleges and universities, collectively) is a funny place. A chunk of its denizens are people like me, who—through a combination of hard work and good luck—overcame the odds against being there. I don’t teach at a prestigious university; I went to a really good college, and a good graduate school, but I’m not from Harvard. Other people, um, are. And while I can’t and shouldn’t generalize about Harvardians, I’d hazard a guess that there’s a class element there—its own website notes only 16% of students have Pell grants, and 20% have family incomes of less than $65,000. Many Harvard grads, particularly from their grad programs, go on to teach at R1 institutions—that is, universities that focus on faculty research more than faculty teaching. While I would much rather teach 3 to 4 classes a term than write frequent books, those R1 universities (1-2 classes per term) tend to pay faculty far more than small universities like my own. Thus there’s class stratification among even full time academics—and this doesn’t get us started on the problem of contingent labor.
In any case, I was at this conference, chatting with some very nice Harvardians, when I complimented one of them on her glasses. “Thanks!” she said, “I like yours, too.” And we got talking about the challenge and cost of finding interesting frames I said, “Yeah, I couldn’t justify spending the $400+ on new frames for fashion reasons, so I just got these on Zenni optical for a song.” She replied, “Because of my ethics, I don’t shop there.”
The conversation pretty much stopped cold and I stood there feeling like a poor at a rich people’s party. Perhaps she didn’t realize that by implication, she suggested I didn’t have ethics, or that leaving hers unsaid put me in a super awkward position of stammering that glasses were expensive, dammit. Maybe she thought they were made with child labor, whereas I didn’t; maybe she was all about supporting a local economy. We’ll never know. I got another glass of wine and ran off to get snacks in my awkwardness.
The whole situation was further uncomfortable because it was a conversation among women. Women are notoriously underpaid in academia; those who are full time tend to be chastised for having kids whereas men are complimented, as having kids has implications for the “tenure clock.” Both of these issues have serious financial and class implications we should be working to eradicate through understanding and respecting each other, rather than, however unintentionally, undercutting each other.
I am a firm believer in shopping your ethics when you can…
but I am also keenly aware that my class position and geographic location allows me to do so. It’s also an exchange—I’ll spend more on things that are ethically satisfying to me, but consequently spend less on other things, like fancy new specs. For example, I do not set foot in Walmart. I find what Walmart has done to small towns (I lived in one and watched this happen) in terms of decimating small shops on main street, and then paying people so little that they can only afford to shop at Walmart, is terrible. I avoid it whenever possible. But I live in a suburb with lots of options; I have the disposable income to make other choices.
Similarly, I try not to buy factory-farmed meat. I strongly disagree with our current agricultural system and what it does to animals; I have a local Whole Foods, so I buy most of our meat there or from the organic department at Costco. I can do so because of my privileged class and geographic position. It’s the same reason I can support our local hardware or paint stores rather than Home Depot whenever possible.
I do, however, still buy my clothes at Old Navy. I buy my glasses online. I’m not a purist, and I realize there are ethical implications to these choices. But I am also hardly so wealthy or, frankly, so motivated that all of our purchases can be sustainably, ethically sourced. I think it’s important to support your values when you can (hello, recycled printer paper!) but it takes a certain kind of gall to speak of those ethics as though they are a given for all, or as though they do not come with enabling or limiting conditions. I might, for example, seek to support women business owners in my neighborhood, but am also aware that I can’t and shouldn’t keep visiting the home décor shops on that principle alone. Or the bakery. Good god, those cakes are delicious.
How do you feel about these issues?
Do you shop your ethics, and do you find your ability to do so both enabled and limited by your situation(s)? How do you navigate social class in your world?