Working-Class Classics: Myths, Stories and Experiences

Lilah Grace Canevaro and Mirko Canevaro

‘Working-Class Classics: A Conversation’ took place on Thursday 22nd April. The event featured 10 speakers and was attended by over 60 people. The presentations were impassioned, the discussion equally so, and the sharing of war stories had a powerful impact. We heard from undergraduates, postgraduates, postdocs and academics at all stages of career and on various types of contract, and the barriers we talked about were evident at every step. Since the workshop, emails have been flooding in. Attendees were struck by how much the stories tallied with their own experiences, and in fact highlighted a significant feature of those experiences. They had felt they were on their own; the workshop helped to dispel that feeling.

Douglas Cairns opened the workshop with a myth. A myth about what EDI means in academia, a myth about how working-class classicists are faring. The myth that things are getting better. That Classics was elitist in the past, in the bad old days, but it is becoming less so. It was very clear from the accumulation of stories at the workshop that these are the bad old days. The bad old days aren’t in the past. The bad old days are now. The issue of class in Classics is now more critical than ever.

There is less and less Classics in state schools. There is less and less funding for teacher training (where it even exists), for graduate study, for postdoctoral work. The fees are greater and the assistance less. Gone are the days of assisted places, or full maintenance grants. The structures that allowed access to Classics in past decades no longer exist. The routes in are closing down all around us, and the gaps where we might fall out of the discipline are growing.

This first workshop focused on the Scottish context, and it was evident that Scotland has particularly pressing problems. There are numerically fewer Scottish students in Scottish universities than there were in 1999 (when the Scottish parliament opened again after nearly 300 years), despite the enormous expansion of those universities since then, so the percentage has dropped dramatically. As most working-class students in Scottish universities are Scottish, this in itself shows that the sector has become more and more dominated by the middle and upper classes. Furthermore, there are only a handful of Scots teaching in Scottish Classics departments, and those only at Edinburgh. The role models for local working-class students simply aren’t there. The impression they get, from the very beginning, is that they are in the wrong place, that they don’t fit in. Overall figures in all subjects in Edinburgh show a decline in the proportion of state-educated students enrolled in undergraduate courses, from 69.8% in 2015/16 to 63.2% in 2019/20 (St Andrews is similar, at 63.8%; Glasgow does much better, at 85.5%). The overall data for the Edinburgh School of History, Classics and Archaeology is even worse than for the university as a whole: in 2019/20, only 47.8% of enrolled students came from state schools. We don’t have the data for Classics alone, but we can be sure it is even more disheartening.

These are the bad old days. Yet people still feel they can brush class inequality under the carpet, even laugh at it. That they can ignore the lived experience of working-class classicists. Participants in the workshop talked about being the lone voice in a meeting, their demands for change falling on deaf ears. About raising these issues in fora that should be sympathetic and still being shot down. And the stories shared in the workshop made clear that it’s not just the demands for change that are being ignored, but the voices of the working-class classicists that make them. You notice people getting impatient as soon as you start to speak. Your ideas are glossed over until someone posher than you suggests the same things and claims them as their own. You feel you have to code switch to be heard and not to make others uncomfortable. Your identity blurs as your accent fades and you adapt to the language natural to your more privileged peers. One graduate student said that toning down his accent in order to fit in was one of his biggest regrets.

Class inequality exacerbates all other kinds of inequalities too. Another graduate student told us about her experiences as a disabled working-class classicist. About studying part-time while holding down multiple jobs, many of which are detrimental to her chronic health conditions. About the financial obstacles that become almost insurmountable when compounded by disability. We heard the stories of dyslexic working-class classicists struggling to play catch-up in the languages, the educational disadvantage connected to their class origins compounded by their disability. Of autistic working-class classicists spent by a culture of precarity and overwork. An undergraduate mature student spoke of his experience as a working-class trans man. An experience in which being transgender had led to challenges in his personal life but not as prominently in his educational journey; in which it was class that had been the biggest obstacle for him in his studies. We heard from working-class migrants attempting to pursue academic careers in Classics in the UK – PhD students and postdocs stuck in an endless series of casualised and precarious contracts. For them, the geographical space travelled is compounded by the social space they have had to cross. They are now two worlds away from their origins, doubly displaced. They lack a safety net and feel trapped – because of the spaces they have travelled, the very idea of going back (‘to what?’) is all the more daunting. These are the lived experiences of working-class classicists.

But one thing is getting better. The discussion is opening up. There are groups being established that are making the discussion open up. The 93% Club now has branches all over the UK, and an Edinburgh representative spoke at the workshop about her experience in Classics. She resists the ‘we’re all middle class anyway’ line of assimilation: she doesn’t want to be middle class, she is proud of being working class. The post-92 Classics network was also represented at the workshop. It is well-placed to target a lot of the issues raised – they are the ones that get most of the working-class Classics students, and can teach us a thing or two about how to make all Classics departments more inclusive. And because intersectionality is so important when talking about class, class can and should be part also of discussions of other inequalities, on the agenda of committees advocating for other marginalised groups. In this first workshop we found commonalities and shared experiences. In these initiatives we find safety in numbers and amplified voices. We are no longer the lone voice in a meeting. We are a network of working-class classicists.

If you would like to hear about future events and help shape them, please complete this form with your contact details and suggestions for the network:

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