Susan B. Apel

[1] The challenges of emigrating from the working class to academia do not stand in isolation; rather they combine with those presented by other kinds of outsider status. I am not just the kid moving from a blue to a white collar culture, or a woman in a traditionally male-created and defined world, or an attempted slayer of the duality of theory and practice in the glute-clenched tradition of law school teaching. I am all three, and have been for 32 years. It proves difficult to figure out which of these has been the source of obstacles, less than fair treatment, and just plain difficult days. I suspect that it is all of them.

Leaving on That Jet Plane

[2] Although I did not know that I was destined to be a law professor until I was almost 30, my life circumstances and choices should have conspired to keep me from all of it. I was born and raised on the North Side of Pittsburgh, in a decidedly blue-collar neighborhood where the residents gathered in the local pub on Saturday nights. Only we called it a bar, or more often, just Louie's. Extended family lived within a block or two. We had picnics and played cards and went to church, maybe an occasional movie. No money for nor interest in museums and concerts, and I suspect we would have sniggered at opera if we had known what it was. No summer camps, no special tutors, no piano or ballet lessons. I grew up in a home with involved parents, but without books of its own.

[3] My bags were packed by the Catholic school fourth grade, when my homeroom nun asked me if I would be going to college. College had never been a word I had uttered, nor had I ever heard it used when it was about me. My parents, proud high school graduates, were saving what little they could, dreaming of a college education for my brother, because he would be the one to support a family. I would be second on the list if at all. A nun's inquiry about college, together with an early library card and a habit of voracious reading, cemented the notion that there were universes other than my urban neighborhood on the North Side of Pittsburgh. I was ready to go.


Headwind: a wind having the opposite general direction to a course of movement (as of an aircraft).

[4] My first gaffe, and a sign of early naivete, was that I tried to obtain a job in legal academia by sending a letter and resume to several law schools, instead of attending the meat market that is the source of most faculty hiring. It worked. One day I was running a legal aid office in rural Pennsylvania, and the next I was a member of the faculty at Vermont Law School. I was welcomed by my colleagues and then moved off of their collective radar screen. As a clinician with a one-year contract, no one had reason or energy to give much thought to me, my background, or my gender. Except to be told, repeatedly, that I could not vote at faculty meetings.

[5] There are many micro- and not so micro-aggressions that happen when blue-collar meets upper-middle class academic culture. Some may be intentional, many are born of ignorance or just plain difference. They occur in quotidian fashion. When I failed to understand an off-hand reference to what I later learned was a classic children's book in upper crust households, a colleague proclaimed that I must have had a "deprived childhood," all the while knowing nothing about what kind of childhood I had had. There were repeated exhortations to attend a local county fair. "You won't believe," my colleagues said of the local population, "who crawls out of the mountains to go to this thing." I went. I saw my clients, numerous older women at bake stands who looked like my aunts, and young women toting babies who could have lived in my old neighborhood. Did my colleagues see poor and working class people as oddities, like the pig races or the tractor pulls?

[6] The headwinds came into their own when I decided to apply for a tenure-track position, and even more so, when I actually asked for an early tenure decision. A male colleague from a closer to Ivy background, facing tenure at the same time, was constantly engaged in conversations by tenured faculty that began "When you get tenure. . .", so assured were they of his success. In my case, even my supporters looked sadly as they envisioned the crusty ones who would vote against me. People used words like "life of the mind," as they wondered whether or not I had one.

[7] Tenure, and the tenure process, was a headwind of the very foreign kind. My family members who worked in Pittsburgh's steel mills had job security through their payment of union dues. Most of my family just got jobs and hung on, hoping that hard work would see them through. ( In misunderstanding the concept and the word itself, when I was finally granted tenure, one of my aunts remarked that she didn't know I had "been there for 'ten years'.") Aside from the notion of job security, my own reaction was that the tenure process was exclusionary in the same way that country clubs seek members like themselves. Difference of any kind did not help, and mostly hurt one's chances. That I had attended a state university, received my JD from Northeastern (which had chosen not to have a law review—oh my!), had represented poor clients as a legal aid lawyer in mostly gritty little cases instead of finding a nice judicial clerkship—all of these things were said to me on occasion, but more often, were said about me and my candidacy. On a small campus, even the confidential process of tenure leaks its secrets.

Headwinds II

By taking off into the wind (the wind will generate part of the required lift) the aircraft lifts off sooner and this will result in a lower ground speed and therefore shorter take-off run for the aircraft to be airborne. It is therefore recommended.

[8] Headwinds are anathema, with exceptions. Take-off is an exception. On two occasions—when I applied for a tenure-track position, and three years later when I asked for an early tenure decision—I used headwinds to my advantage. I flew directly into them.

[9] Of course I had followed the dictates of the "when in Rome" wisdom. My teaching evaluations were excellent. I produced the required law review articles, prodigiously footnoted though probably not prodigiously enough. I tried to contribute and be nice. As anyone who has experienced being different can attest, the miasma of gender/class/pedagogy difference was there, and then not there. It was obvious and then it was not. It appeared, and disappeared. It was like fog.

[10] I did what any kid on the North Side streets would do. I called it, and them, out. I went to faculty members' offices, asking if there were any reasons they felt they could not support my candidacy. I required them to say things out loud and to my face, not just to mumble to each other. Each professed himself to support me, although each retained doubts about the rest of the faculty. After many such conversations, I did the math, and realized I could stop. I was hired and tenured within 3 years.


Tailwind: a wind having the same general direction as a course of movement (as of an aircraft).
A tailwind increases the object's speed and reduces the time required to reach its destination.

[11] While a working-class background may be seen as an odd fit in a legal academic culture, the truth is that I would not have changed a thing. Not only am I proud of my heritage, I believe it offers a number of advantages in career and in life.

[12] There is freedom in not being required by one's family to achieve impossible altitude. I have known colleagues whose families of origin included multiple academic and professional degrees, along with enormous pressure to meet, or more likely, to exceed their parents' and siblings' accomplishments. Even in middle age, those colleagues seemed to lack confidence, as if they spent much time measuring themselves (and being measured) by disproportionate yardsticks. These colleagues had to justify to family and friends why they weren't holding some endowed chair at a prestigious university. By contrast, my family and friends thought graduating from college—any college—was impressive. My parents wanted financial stability for their children, and beyond that, my mother always said that her ambition for her children was that they be "good people." My family was proud —at times embarrassingly and endearingly so—of my having become a lawyer and law professor; they would have been as proud if I had worked at the phone company.

[13] Work, as well as the work ethic, of my childhood gave me perspective in my academic career. In its simplest form, it meant that while I worked hard as a teacher and scholar, I was always aware that this kind of work was highly privileged. It quite literally did not involve the heavy lifting of my father's job as a laborer. A degree of autonomy meant that I was not as subject to the whims of a boss, as was my mother in her work at the bank. I was extremely happy, even as I pinched myself, that my "work" was my own, and that someone was paying me to engage in my lifelong passions—reading and writing.

[14] At the same time, the struggles of my youth gave me opportunities to learn how to struggle and sometimes, succeed. Patience, persistence, and ability to keep one's eye on the ball and follow through are traits that I certainly have not mastered, but with which I had more than a passing acquaintance. In a random conversation with one of my students' father at graduation, he asked about my background, where I had come from, whether my father was a lawyer. I gave a thumbnail sketch of my origins. He said that if a person had put themselves through college and law school, they had already achieved great success at an early age. Later, in reflecting on my own early struggles and accomplishments, I thought that by comparison, jumping into academia and obtaining tenure was (almost) a piece of cake.

[15] The late Maya Angelou has been quoted as saying "Whining is not only graceless, but can be dangerous. It can alert a brute that a victim is in the neighborhood." Despite the instances of awkwardness and maybe even discrimination beyond that which I have recognized, I have seldom felt like a victim in academia or anywhere else. The working-class kid in me might even a feel a little superior. A friend of mine observed that she felt sorry for richer, more privileged people, who laugh with their teeth clenched and are bereft of skills like how to stretch a meal to feed multitudes. In this way, I feel bi-cultural, which had added, not detracted, from my skills, career, and life.


[16] Age (almost 62), senior status, moving into phased retirement mean the struggles of earlier days are largely over for me. I think less about my working-class roots, maybe because after many decades in academia I have moved further away from them, although I still laugh loudly and open-mouthed. Mostly, though, having arrived at a place where I no longer need headwinds to take off, and since that is their only advantage, I am less beguiled by their charms. I have landed and am content to stay on the ground where headwinds and tailwinds matter not at all.


  1. "Headwind." Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web.25 June 2014. «»
  2. Taking off into the wind, Experimental Aircraft Info. «»
  3. "Tailwind." Merriam-Webster, n/d/ Web.25 June 1014. «»
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  5. Maya Angelou, Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now, Random House, New York, NY (1993), p. 87.