The underclass psychologist

Punit Shah with his personal reflections.

The ‘underclass’ refers to minority groups in society, characterised by un(der)employment, with little chance of improving their situation. Our stories, sometimes expressed in stark terms to highlight the many challenges faced by lower class people, can also draw attention to opportunities in education and academia.

I've spent years on Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) committees. The narrow focus on gender and ethnicity has been personally and professionally frustrating, leaving little space for the exposition of class-based inequalities. Where such inequalities are addressed, it’s at a superficial level, with little consideration of people from the lowest classes. There is almost no focus on the ‘underclass’, the ‘lumpenproletariat’, which Marx referred to as the ‘dangerous class’ and ‘social scum’. 

As someone who belongs to (or arguably belonged to) the underclass, I am here to reflect on formative experiences – spanning my personal and academic life – that I have rarely discussed. 

School and college

We spent several years homeless after my father left. My mother – a non-english speaking dinner lady – my two younger brothers and I were in temporary accommodation in crime-ridden areas. I was knifed, and experienced racism (though never from white people). I spent much of my time finding accommodation and undertaking casual work, as we had little money or family support.

Despite these early adversities, we never lost sight of the transformative value of education. Even ‘failing’ schools provided us with adequate provision and relief from the harsh realities of home life. ‘Personal responsibility’ are two words that tend not to be well received in EDI discussions. I get that ‘personal responsibility’ can be used to turn away from societal and structural issues – the ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ narrative. However, I have an unwavering sense that personal responsibility was crucial for my growth. I have no doubt that a strong sense of personal responsibility, instilled by my mother, ensured that I made the most of an imperfect education system.

Based on this experience, I propose that Widening Participation (WP) schemes in schools, colleges, and universities need not have grand aims. Instead, they should focus on the ‘basics’ (e.g. attendance and punctuality), whilst focusing on the empowering value of personal responsibility. Schools adopting these practices for underclass children are flourishing and universities could benefit from similar approaches.

Despite a stellar academic record, I had little money to contemplate going to university, whereas for most ‘straight A’ students this was the default. Loans, grants, and bursaries were available, but the psychological difficulty of leaving my family was a barrier. The pressure to progress to university, from teachers and society, was also more harmful than helpful. 

Resisting this pressure, I took up low paid work in supermarkets and pharmacies. Whilst many of my academic equals went to university and/or gap years in Peru, I worked three jobs, >60-hour weeks, seven days a week, usually on my feet.

Was this terrible? Not at all. It was a rewarding, formative, and resilience-building period. We should be wary of imbuing middle-class ideals onto underclass students, and rushing them into university. Avoid throwing cash at them, especially loans. Rather, WP schemes might benefit from supporting underclass students into meaningful employment. It would serve as a useful mechanism to generate income and build their confidence for progression to HE if or when the time is right for them.

Undergraduate

I built up financial and psychological resources to attend university. Rather than hastily choosing a course, like many of my peers, my underclass roots underpinned a genuine desire to study Psychology. Yet I arrived at an institution where I didn’t ‘fit in’. I was louder, brasher, and told I was ‘aggressive’. When I publicly challenged a poorly performing Lecturer, albeit inappropriately, I was ostracised by other students. I was asked by the Head of School to apologise. I refused. 

Was I a ‘troublemaker’? Perhaps. But rather than trying to mould everyone to middle-class archetypes, skirting around problems with niceties, there is much to be learnt from a direct, lower-class approach to life. The ‘dead wood’ in academia represents a barrier to entry for under-represented groups. Rather than encouraging students, particularly from the lower classes, to sit behind a keyboard and mindlessly contribute to unit evaluations, we should train them to develop arguments and voice their concerns. 

Those two ‘dirty words’, personal responsibility, are pertinent again. When facing incompetent lecturers, I started doing my own research and achieved the highest mark in my cohort. There are opportunities to channel disgruntlement with middle-class systems, currently failing to hold poor academics to account, into bettering your own academic life.

That said, I had some amazing lecturers who went out of their way to support me and others. For example, one academic supported my attendance at a prestigious summer school in cognitive neuroscience. I cried when I read the positive things in their letter of support – no one had ever done that for me. I loved that summer school, although I looked silly when I turned up to the conference dinner in a formal suit. I won a British Science Association prize after another academic nominated me for my dissertation. For that prize dinner, I should have gone with the suit – jeans and hand-me-down shirt were inappropriate. I wear that suit to this day, but I am getting better at knowing when to wear it!

I was obviously floundering in a world, far removed from my childhood, which I didn’t understand. Instead of dwelling on class-based faux pas, I was heartened by support from these academic ‘strangers’ in my life. Supportive lecturers became the family I never had. Which WP schemes were invoked in these situations? None. It was the kindness and generosity of individuals, not the state or the university, that supported me. 

From these experiences, I propose that we cannot defer the tough, nuanced work of supporting lower-class students to hollow university initiatives. It is about those two words again – personal responsibility – for all of us, as individuals, to support lower-class people in HE. Sadly, this important work is rarely rewarded. Promotion criteria are based on nebulous contributions to ‘university strategy’ rather than meaningful work to improve students’ lives. We need to give academics more time, incentive, and reward, to step up their efforts to improve the social-professional mobility of underclass students. 

Postgraduate

Finishing with a first-class bachelor’s degree, I attended an interview for a funded MSc + PhD, again wearing that suit. I was successful and would have my fees paid and a tax-free salary. Wow! (As a quick aside, it pains me to see how many students don’t appreciate their funded PhDs). There were no WP schemes here but, again, the encouragement from an individual academic was crucial in my undertaking postgraduate study. With their supervision, I started thriving. 

I realised that I could intellectually compete with middle-class academics in the highest echelons of psychology. My direct, ‘aggressive’ attitude also set me apart from overly polite middle-class people who seemed to be stifled by the power hierarchies of academia. Regardless of how I dressed or spoke, most academics treated me with respect. I encourage all students – particularly lower-class students – to get over any qualms about interacting with leading academics. Don’t wait for a ‘WP initiative’ or a contrived ‘networking event’ to engage – just go for it.  

Despite successes during this time, my background started catching up with me. After a boozy Christmas party, a senior student told me that ‘someone from my background’ couldn’t appreciate Popper and Kuhn. I was keen to emphasise that they were mistaken whilst taking them by the scruff of the neck. We were both appropriately reprimanded. 

My difficulties with doctoral life came to a head when a fellow student and friend died by suicide. When I started speaking against the university higher-ups, appalled by their efforts to cover up the situation, I was rebuked. My friend was not an underclass student but they shared many of the struggles to ‘fit in’ that I experienced. Their family were at a distance, and I think they experienced a profound sense of being lost in academia. Being an underclass person gives me the gumption to admit that, as their friend, I failed them. Those two words, personal responsibility, are relevant again: their death is partly my responsibility. I hope that one day the (middle-class) academics who also contributed to this death will take a little more responsibility for their actions (or lack thereof).

Early Career Researcher

After this sad event, nearing the end of my PhD, I was on a downward trajectory, heading back towards my underclass origins. Relationships and friendships fell apart and I became a liability due to my own behaviour. Yes… personal responsibility. I was drinking too much and, after my partner left and I was unable to afford the rent, I faced homelessness again.

As a homeless child, I had to run away from various dangers. Fight or flight. When faced with being homeless again, it seemed like an automatic response that led me back to running. Running, I soon realised, gave me the mental clarity required to deal with my friend’s death. I can’t emphasise enough the value that physical exercise brought to my life. Beyond any mindless WP initiative, I’d encourage students to engage in physical challenges to help them overcome the mental ones. 

Through running, I motivated myself to apply for jobs. I couldn’t risk the uncertainty of short-term contracts – one of the biggest barriers for lower-class people in academia – so I sought a permanent post. After several rejections, I got a permeant Lecturership in a ‘low-ranking’ department and casual teaching work at an evening university (of course wearing that suit to all my interviews again!). 

Whilst my peers were completing their PhDs and applying for prestigious fellowships, I worked three jobs, >60-hour weeks, 7 days a week, whilst completing my doctorate. I look back on this time as the highlight of my career. It was a pleasure to teach engaged lower-class people rather than overly entitled middle-class students who only cared about their marks. But I was living and working in different cities, and travelling across the unsafe city where I had grown up. It often felt traumatising. The situation was unsustainable.

Then, a permanent Lectureship came up at a ‘high-ranking’ university in one of the safest areas of the UK. As I arrived for interview, my heart sunk thinking that I would never get the job and live in such a beautiful place.

My fears played out as the interview panel were unimpressed. One panel member found it implausible that I could be teaching multiple modules whilst finishing my PhD. I wanted to scream that I was working every waking hour of the day to manage my workload. When, asked about my approach to EDI, I talked about personal responsibility and small but meaningful acts in everyday life. They seemed unimpressed – perhaps they were looking for me to waffle about university strategy and Athena SWAN. 

It was bruising, and I didn’t hear back for three weeks. When I contacted HR, I discovered that I was a reserve candidate. It turned out some of the staff, including one member of the panel, had been impressed by my application. I wasn’t given one of two original posts, but I was offered an extra position that opened up. I will forever be grateful to the person involved in making this happen. Their individual course of action changed my entire life. I hope this inspires other university managers to do the same in hiring motivated, lower-class candidates that don’t ‘fit’ their teams. 

A ’good fit’? 

Have I ‘made it’ in academia? Well, there are ongoing challenges. I have felt ostracised and undermined by certain colleagues. And I see other, exceptional psychologists having a tough time, being overlooked for jobs and promotions, relative to weaker candidates. I see biases embedded into the hiring processes. This has a disproportionate impact on lower class people trying to enter academia. There is not overt ‘classism’ but a culture of favouring candidates who look and sound like existing, largely middle-class staff members. There is an insidious, cliquey mentality in support of candidates with links to existing staff, rather than a dispassionate evaluation of the applicant.

Unsuccessful applicants are told that they are not ‘the best fit’ for the role. I now see why I was not seen a ‘good fit’, despite objectively having a stronger academic record than other applicants. I now see some of the same academics on my hiring panel bringing the same bias to bear on others who ‘don’t fit’ their clique. Einstein said, ‘Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds’. I see these mediocre minds, and we must challenge them. Robust, objective, and competence-based criteria must be introduced. Lower-class people will gain most from an overhaul of current procedures. Until we see this change, if you are involved in the hiring or promotion of staff, I implore you to challenge bias where you see it.

Reason for optimism

Class-based inequalities are even clearer beyond academia, even for established academics. I am experiencing some of this as I start contributing to policy through my research. Recently, for example, my contribution to a discussion on climate policy – an area where lower-class people and academics are underrepresented – irked supposedly ‘liberal’ council leaders. 

Ultimately, this is all middle-class wrangling that I will be tackling head on. My underclass roots stand me in good stead for addressing these ‘first world problems’ and academic and political bullies. Unlike life as a teenager, I don’t need to run from keyboard academic warriors… I am up for the fight! I just hope that other, lower-class people feel empowered to do the same and, given political events in recent years, I think we are seeing this change in the UK.

I will emphasise that for all the difficulties faced by lower-class academics, there are many wonderful people and opportunities. I have some amazing colleagues and students and I am lucky to have an academic partner. Together, I am part of an academic family that compensates for the lack of a conventional family. There are reasons for optimism for lower class people considering an academic career, and I hope I encourage rather than discourage their participation.

On lighter note, that suit I bought as an undergraduate is now worn for giving prize lectures, appearing on TV, and when meeting MPs. I could even afford another if I wanted. I own my home. I sometimes even shop at M&S and Waitrose. Even this article has egotistical, self-congratulatory undertones that are characteristic of the middle-classes. Maybe I’m no longer a credible representative for underclass people. I’m the first to admit this is just one narrative, with my own biases and misperceptions. I may well have misattributed challenges and successes to my underclass identity, and there are numerous psychologically relevant mechanisms that I have ignored. 

So take my story with a pinch of salt and focus your time on small, individual acts of kindness, to support lower class people. You might just change their life.

- Dr Punit Shah is Associate Professor of Psychology. [email protected]

Illustration: Eliza Southwood

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June 2022

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