William Barratt, Indiana State University
2015 Jon C. Dalton Institute on College Student Values Keynote Speaker
Will Barratt teaches student affairs and higher education in the Department of Educational Leadership at Indiana State University where he is the Coffman Distinguished Professor. He has been writing and making conference presentations about social class for 10 years. His book, Social Class on Campus, came out in 2011 and his blog of the same name gets more than 2,000 page views a month and the blog he developed with students, Project 1st Gen in Student Affairs, has had over 17,000 page views in 2 ½ years. He is also a frequent speaker on social class issues at faculty and staff development events. His current projects include work on the phenomenology of social class and multinational/multicultural perspectives on social class and social stratification. His students insisted that he include in this bio that he is an avid fan of Hawaiian shirts.
How did you first become interested in social class and how did this lead to your blog: Social Class on Campus?
I came to social class by becoming increasingly aware of social class contrast, especially after I finished my doctoral work at The University of Iowa and moved to Terre Haute, Indiana where my wife was faculty at Indiana State. Terre Haute is a great town and is a working-class town, which is quite different than Iowa City which is a college town. My work and volunteer activities in Terre Haute engaged me with an array of people in town – which was quite a contrast to my life on campus during the previous 30 years. I was born in a college town and grew up in another college town. I have always been affiliated with a college or college town in some way.
I started doing conference presentations with students on social class and began to write in order to move my thinking forward. At that time theories about social identities were being expanded beyond what I had read in graduate school and I always had campus environments in mind when thinking about students on campus so those mental models of identities in environments provided a lens on social class for me. At one point I was asked to give a 20 minute presentation on social class, and as a professor I take 20 minutes to warm up. This short presentation helped me focus on critical ideas. A little later I did a presentation for the NASPA multicultural conference and identified 10 critical points about social class. Those 10 ideas helped me frame the book, and I wrote the book to move my thinking forward. After finishing the book I wanted to keep my forward intellectual momentum and began using the blog as a way to keep thinking and to involve other people, mostly students, in my thinking and writing. I still use the blog in that way – to move ideas and practices forward.
In a section of your blog called Social Class Code-Switching or Trans-Cultural Communication, you describe the development of competency in multiple cultures/sub-cultures/social class groups as a skill called trans-culture, which is valued in the work force. Do you think underclass students with higher development of this skill are more valuable than overclass students, who have more cultural capital?
For me the ability to work effectively with more cognitive and affective tools is a good thing. I have always envied my multilingual friends – my wife is multilingual and my son is bilingual and works in a bilingual school – and I appreciate how they can move between languages and have access to converse in two languages at once with someone who also has those two languages.
The current attention on campus and in the media given to first generation students is a good thing. Those first generation students are seen as at risk and in need of remediation and supplemental instruction. This emphasis on first generation students does not often contextualize them in the social class on campus however and they are treated as the other by members of the majority class and ruling class on campus. I am very concerned for the majority students’ future in the work force because they do not experience social class contrast. Underclass students learn to work within a majority culture on campus, becoming bi-cultural. Consequently underclass students have a skill set that majority class student don’t.
Living in a multicultural society, like a multilingual one, means that the ability to work within multiple cultures, and this is a good thing. I don’t think that majority students are learning to work with other social class groups, much less with ethnically different students, or even to work effectively with gender.
What changes would you implement in higher education to balance the differences between underclass students, who build trans-culture skills, and overclass students, who have more cultural, economic, and social capital?
I think we all need to foreground social class for all students. I think we also need to explore our ideas of cultural capital – what we think is prestige. One way to look at education is as a system for the transmission of cultural capital – prestige knowledge and skills. We teach Alexander Pope and Langston Hughes and we should also teach Cowboy poetry, and rhythm and poetry (RAP), and what we consider non-prestige poetry, and street art like Banksy, and those things we consider low prestige. I am always delighted to see those non-prestige materials as the focus of a class, and this focus needs to become widespread.
For all students, faculty, administrators, and staff we need to work on social capital. Students who come to campus with high economic and cultural resources will be more likely build social capital with each other. We need to help everyone build a wide array of social capital and there is a skill set that we can teach everyone to build and maintain social ties. Social media is a great tool for building and maintaining weak ties, as Granovetter described them in The Strength of Weak Ties, and for turning weak ties into strong ties.
In another section of your blog titled Etiquette and Campus you talk about how formal rules of etiquette perpetuate social class differences. Do you think it is important for students to learn about formal etiquette rules if it reproduces a social class hierarchy?
One day I ended up going out to dinner, just for fun, at a local Thai restaurant with half a dozen students. After we ordered, with some help since this was the first Thai restaurant experience for some of the students, one of the students pulled out a pair of collapsible chopsticks. Now, I was impressed that he carried these around but I had to tell him that Thai food is eaten with a spoon and that the fork is used to move the food onto the spoon. We all need to learn dining rules for multiple cultural settings. We all need to learn social greeting rules for multiple cultural settings, like the handshake, the bow, and the wai. We all need to understand that we co-create the prestige dining rules of formal etiquette and that this perpetuates social stratification. If you know formal etiquette rules then you must be high class.
I know that etiquette relativism is not a popular point of view because many people believe that high prestige etiquette is actually better than lower prestige etiquette. In the words of one of my cultural mentors, Cseresnyesi Lazlo, “Not better, not worse, only different”. If we believe something to be real, then it is real for us. We need to become aware of what we believe.
Based on your belief that social class is what you do with, and how you feel about your education, income, occupation, or even neighborhood, and the various assessments offered in the blog section What is my Social Class? how do your beliefs shape your social class?
I wanted to add “And how does your social class shape your beliefs?” in order to help us all understand that this is a feedback loop that only exists inside our heads. If you think of social class as internalized culture than this idea of a feedback loop makes more sense. Cultural rules are transmitted interpersonally, through the media, and through observation. What we see in the world around us is affected by what we pay attention to, so my belief that my social class, as a member of the majority social class group on campus, is the best social class will shape my perception of the world around me. I will see things that confirm my world view and miss things that disconfirm my world view. We see what we want to see and that confirms what we want to see.
Cialdini’s idea of social proof, from the book Influence, tells us that we look to others for guidance when we don’t know what to do. If we are uncertain at dinner we will watch someone pick up the salad fork and then follow what they do. Cialdini also wrote that we are more likely to pay attention to people like us so our perceptual set is limited and we confirm our limited world view.
How do you think this concept applies across different cultures?
I lived in Budapest, Hungary for a year back when it was officially communist – a classless state in theory, and I lived in Beijing, China for a year, also a classless communist state. The visible signs of social class were different but class was readily visible in these communist governed classless nations. I have spent time in Brazil and in Thailand and the signs and symbols of social class were different but class was readily visible. Every one of the 32 nations I have visited has social class hierarchies, or as my sociologist friends call it, a stratified society. Sometimes a nation or culture will have a social class group that we don’t have in the US, like the Intelligentsia, but social class stratification is everywhere. Sometimes the hierarchy is based on political power, sometimes on education, sometimes on physical prowess, sometimes on family ties, but social class is ubiquitous.
For me, I am interested in how education plays a role in the personal transition from one class to another in various cultures, so that is my long range research project. The ides of social class identity is very interesting to me.
The blog post “Why is Social Class Important” touches on social class in relation to citizenship. To discuss further, what role do you think social class plays in teaching students about active citizenship in higher education?
When I give talks in graduate classes or make conference presentations about class I talk about everyone in the room being in the ruling class – we make and enforce the rules. We are the most well educated group, assuming a graduate degree, and we have high prestige occupations. Even though student affairs is low prestige on campus we get to work on campus, which is very high prestige. Sometimes people vote their wallets, voting from their economic interests, and sometimes people vote their social class, voting to support their social class group interests. The interests of people with high prestige cultural capital, like those reading this interview, are different than the interests of people with low prestige cultural capital. Citizenship is about the larger and more inclusive us. Citizenship is about the diverse us. Citizenship for me is not about the similar social class group us. It is critical to keep in mind that this is a classed world view, and that all world views are to a degree classed.
How do you think we can better prepare students to understand social class and how it relates to the workplace and citizenship?
Awareness, knowledge, and skill. The beginning of being better at anything is of course awareness, so learning different models of social class and trying to see social class every day. As with any new knowledge base and skill set we aren’t very good at the beginning – we fail a lot at the early stages of anything, but we kept at it as our awareness and skill increased. Find a starting place in your journey, a mental model of social class, and stay on that path.
For me the best model of social class is a phenomenological one – that social class is only inside our heads and that we make it up each day, that we co-create it, that we co-evolve it. Seen in this way change is internal, which is the only change I can control. When I change how I see class I change how I participate in the creation and evolution of social class. If class is internal to me then I am responsible. If class is external to me, and there is no evidence to support that model of social class, then there is little I can do about it. Many people think and act as if class is external to them, that class inequities are not their fault. All inequities are our fault in the degree to which we participate with others in their creation and perpetuation.