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Book Review: Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams by Alfred Lubrano

Workboots sit under a bright blue sky.Summary:
What do you call the approximately 1 out of 5 working class American kids who go to college and move into the white collar world?  Journalist Alfred Lubrano calls them Straddlers, and the world they live in Limbo.  Through interviewing experts on social mobility and class, therapists, and Straddlers themselves, Lubrano seeks to establish the unique challenges and triumphs of moving up the social ladder from blue to white in America.

Review:
I picked this up because I happen to be one of the Straddlers Lubrano is talking about, and I was curious to know both what about my experiences are common among all Straddlers and pieces of advice on navigating the interesting experience of being a Straddler.  The book brings to light the often overlooked issue of how changing classes impacts a person’s life, as well as real cultural differences among the blue-collar and white-collar classes in America.

Lubrano begins his book by defining blue and white collar.  A blue collar person can make more money than a white collar person (think of a successful plumber versus a struggling journalist).  Blue versus white collar isn’t about how much income a person generates, according to Lubrano.  What really makes the difference is 1) education level and 2) type of work.  The blue collar person may have an associate’s degree or a trade degree or certification.  The white collar person will have, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree.  The blue collar person generally works with their hands or in service industries.  The white collar person works in an office or on a computer.  Thus, what generally begins the change from blue to white collar is attending a four-year college.

The book next establishes the blue collar background the Straddler comes from, as well as establishing statistics on class mobility and class differences.  By establishing firmly the blue collar background the Straddler comes from and how that affects their thought patterns and approaches, Lubrano lays the groundwork for highlighting the unique struggles Straddlers go through in college and later at their white collar jobs and in their white collar surroundings.  The blue collar class elements Lubrano highlights include: being taught that working hard will get you what you want (the ideal of a meritocracy at all levels of society), distrust of the boss/upper-levels of management, intense loyalty to community and fellow workers, high value on obedience and conformity to community, patriotism, straight talking, and emotions being close to the surface and easily erupting.

The next section deals with the blue collar kid starting college.  Both blue collar families that push college and those that degrade it are discussed, as well as the reasons for both reactions by blue collar parents to college.  On the one hand, there are the parents who view college as a straight-shot meritocracy to a better job, better life, and better ability to live your dreams.  On the other hand, there are the parents who are afraid that they will lose standing in their own home if their child outsmarts or outshines them.  By and large, however, most blue collar parents fall in the former category.  Lubrano points out that blue collar parents don’t intimately know or understand the white collar world they are sending their children into, and thus unknowingly often give them bad information or false hopes.  To the blue collar parent, a college degree is a golden ticket, and so the blue collar child is pushed into a culture they are unprepared for.

Straddlers’ parents have such plans for their kids. With strong hopes but scant information, many push their progeny toward the vague realm of Something Better–the glorious middle class. Imbued with these dreams, Straddlers lurch awkwardly out of sheltering enclaves into unknown realms. On their sometimes troubled way, they become educated and awaken to class differences between the past and their would-be future. Priorities shift. Some values change, while some remain constant. Unlike many they meet in the new, white-collar world, these people are hybrids. That duality is their strength and their struggle, and will comfort and vex them throughout their days. (loc 611)

Next, the book tackles the blue collar / white collar culture clash that begins to occur when a blue collar person attends college and will continue throughout their life as a Straddler.  Lubrano does an eloquent job of addressing both how the Straddler struggles to understand the white collar world she now inhabits, as well as how the Straddler starts to change and no longer fits in among her family and blue collar people she grew up with.  The changes that often make a Straddler no longer fit in among her family include: language, leaving religion, and dietary choices.  College makes the blue collar kids change, and often their families are not expecting that.  Suddenly, the child speaks like a stranger, eats like a stranger, and no longer feels attached to the family religion. The culture clash between the working class college student and her new peers is perhaps a bit more obvious.  The monetary differences are clear immediately.  Peers often don’t understand the need to work or the high value of a dollar to their blue collar classmate.  More subtle and far-reaching than the different approaches to money, though, are the different approaches to life.  White collar kids are raised with self-esteem and feelings of entitlement that blue collar kids never knew existed.  They navigate campus with a sureness of belonging, and that surety will aid them throughout their careers.

The book next tackles how these class differences affect the Straddler’s career.  This is the most fascinating part of the book.  Most people probably expect that a blue collar kid going to college will experience some culture clashes and struggles with the family, but the idea that these struggles will continue past college is not obvious.  College is supposed to prep everyone for a career, but the fact is, oftentimes colleges leave the Straddler student floundering on their own. There are generally no classes on how to be white collar, you’re just supposed to know.  And it’s not always easy for the Straddler to just pick this up on their own.  Lubrano highlights the key areas in which the blue collar culture the Straddler was raised with clashes with the expectations of a white collar job and can hurt a career.

If you come from the working class, you haven’t got a clue how to conduct yourself when you first land in an office. You’re lost if you can’t navigate the landscape–if you follow blue-collar mores and speak your mind, directly challenging authority. Without tact and subtlety, without the ability to practice politics amongst the cubicles, an executive with a blue-collar background will not rise. (loc 2473)

Among the issues Lubrano highlights as frequently arising for Straddlers are a tendency to be lacking in tact, an innate disgust for and inability to handle the inauthenticity demanded by office politics, and a lack of understanding of the manner of dress expected in white collar jobs.  Additionally, blue collar homes often denigrate the boss or the man, demanding only loyalty to fellow workers.  White collar culture, on the other hand, demands loyalty to firm, not your coworkers, as well as an expectation that you will automatically desire to rise up the ladder and become the man.  Perhaps the most difficult skill for Straddlers to learn and appreciate is networking.  Blue collar homes teach you to leave work at work.  Family time is a sacred space.  White collar jobs expect extraneous socializing in the form of networking, additionally they expect the white collar workers’ whole family to participate in their career, when needed.  (Think of a networking dinner in the worker’s home).  This entire concept rubs the Straddler the wrong way.  Networking feels inauthentic and wrong, and the family space feels violated.  Additionally, the Straddler was raised believing hard work advances you, not who you know.  The idea that you advance farther by networking than by working hard can often sicken a Straddler.

I didn’t realize that doing a job well is no guarantee of advancement and opportunity. There are ways to get ahead that have nothing to do with hard work. But blue-collar people are taught that that’s a person’s only currency–you sell your labor and give the boss an honest eight hours….Along with blatant kissing up, networking and socializing with bosses and colleagues also are dirty words to some Straddlers. It all smacks of phoniness and is antithetical to their blue-collar backgrounds, which emphasize honesty in human relations–”real” relationships. (loc 2735)

The book next discusses Straddler’s romantic lives and experiences parenting their own white collar children.  Unless a Straddler dates another Straddler, they will end up dating someone who does not communicate the same way they do.  If they date a blue collar person, the same issues they have with their own family arise.  If they date a white collar (born and raised) person, then issues in communication similar to the ones they experience at work come up.  If the Straddler marries a blue collar person, that person will often feel threatened by their academic interests.  If the Straddler marries a white collar person, communication is often an issue.  White collar people are taught to manage their emotions and shut down when upset.  The Straddler was raised with emotions at the surface in a passionate manner.  This can freak out the white collar person, and in turn, the relative calm of the white collar partner can drive the Straddler crazy.

When it comes to kids, most Straddlers talk a lot about trying to keep their kids from having a sense of entitlement.  They want them to connect to their blue collar roots, to appreciate blue collar work, and to have blue collar values.  The Straddler wants their child to have to struggle, because they value the personal growth they themselves got out of it.

The book closes out with a discussion of what makes a successful Straddler.  Ideally, the Straddler will become bicultural.  Able to navigate both blue and white collar worlds, and appreciate the positive in both. Unashamed of where they came from and unashamed of where they ended up.

The more successful Straddlers–and by this I mean people who are comfortable with their lives–embrace their middle-class reality while honoring their blue-collar roots. Though they live in limbo, they choose to concentrate on the upside and what makes them unique. (loc 4175)

The book addresses a topic that badly needs to be addressed.  If one in five working class kids becomes a Straddler, that’s a huge sociological group that is often not discussed.  However, there are some weak points in the book.  Although Lubrano acknowledges that Straddlers can come from the city or rural areas, since he grew up in Brooklyn, he tends to focus in on those who come from the city.  He could have sought out more Straddlers to interview who grew up rural poor to get a firmer grasp on what their life experiences are like.  There are some subtle differences between city and rural blue collar.  Similarly, Lubrano mostly interviews people of the same generation as himself.  He conducts one series of interviews with three people from a younger generation, but primarily he interviews people from the same age-range.  Although it’s obvious these issues are consistent across generations, it would be a stronger book with multiple generation’s voices.  Similarly, the book came out in 2005, and an updated edition would be nice.

Overall, this is an engaging read that addresses the sociological issue of moving from blue collar to white collar class.  Interviews with both Straddlers and experts brighten and enlighten the text, although the book would benefit from a bit more variety in the Straddlers interviewed.  Recommended to anyone who is a Straddler themselves, as well as those who may educate or work with Straddlers and those with an interest in class differences.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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On Open Access (OA) and Institutional Repositories (IRs)

October 19, 2012 Leave a comment

I recently went to a town meeting on Open Access (OA) and our Institutional Repository (IR).  (Universities and colleges have our own town meetings, because we’re basically our own mini-towns).  This meeting spurred me on to do a bit of a blog post on OA and IRs.  I’ll first give a brief explanation of OA and IRs, including links to some resources for more information, and wrap up with my own thoughts.

OA is the concept and movement within academia that access to academic literature should be free online and free of most copyright restrictions.  The idea is that for knowledge to flourish the exchange of ideas should be as free and fluid as possible.  Because this is a concept and movement this means that not everyone agrees with this idea.  Agreement and support of OA also varies drastically by area of specialty.  The sciences are the most supportive of OA, particularly Physics.  This is evident by the existence of the website arXiv.org, which provides “open access to 792,606 e-prints in Physics, Mathematics, Computer Science, Quantitative Biology, Quantitative Finance and Statistics.” The humanities are less so.  This has to do with the culture of the different disciplines. The sciences are more focused on teamwork and sharing new knowledge as quickly as possible, whereas the humanities tend to be more concerned with ruminating on ideas.  The pace is simply faster in the sciences than in the humanities, and OA is more useful in that environment.

Utilizing and supporting OA comes across in a few different ways.  There are OA journals, which are free to use, but not necessarily free to submit an article to.  To those concerned, the submission fee does not guarantee acceptance of an article.  It is simply there to help the OA journals function.  Studies on the percentage of OA journals charging a fee vary rather widely on their final numbers.  These fees are of concern to faculty members, though, because they can quickly go through grant money that could have been used in other ways just paying submission fees.  Although there originally was concern as to the quality of OA journals, OA does not negate peer-review.  There are many peer-reviewed and respected journals; the PLOS ones in particular spring to mind, but you can see a listing of all OA journals at the Directory of Open Access Journals.  Academics can support OA both by submitting to and reading OA journals, and institutions can support OA by giving articles published in OA journals equal consideration when doing tenure reviews.

OA can be pursued in traditional publishing as well, however.  Frequently faculty members do not fully understand what is happening with their copyright when they sign contracts with a publisher.  The creator owns the copyright of an item at the moment of creation. He or she does not need to register it.  This is not always clear to people because from 1923 to 1963 (in the US) you did have to register your copyright and re-register it every 28 years.  Anything published before 1923 in the US is officially in the public domain aka free of copyright.  This is why mashups such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies can happen.  What all this means is that the author of the paper owns copyright until they sign it over to the publisher, and they do not have to kowtow to all of the demands of the publisher.  OA advocates encourage authors to return the contract to the publisher unsigned with a SPARC Addendum attached.  This addendum gives the publisher some rights over the paper/article/book while retaining some for the author.  What this essentially means is that the author retains certain rights over his or her article that most faculty members think they have anyway.  Only now it’s legal.  For instance, this addendum gives the author permission to deposit their paper in an Institutional Repository or include it in a group of pdfs of publications on their personal website, as long as it is properly cited to the journal of first publication.

A popular way for publishers to support OA while still staying in business, beyond agreeing to SPARC Addendums, is the concept of an embargo.  An embargo means that articles are available exclusively through subscription and fees for a set period of time (usually from 6 months to 2 years), and after that point they are available through OA.  The qualm some advocates of OA have with this model is that for certain fields of study, particularly in the sciences, the embargo period is long enough that the article will be practically irrelevant by the time it is available openly, thereby defeating the whole purpose of encouraging collaboration and free flow of ideas behind OA to begin with.

If you are interested in learning more about OA, check out Peter Suber’s book Open Access.  You can also check out this this handout that explains the OA spectrum in an infographic style.

So what do Institutional Repositories (IRs) have to do with OA?  An IR is a curated collection of all academic publishing, as well as collections such as photographs taken by anthropologists, created by scholars associated with the institution.  The IR is the institution’s research portfolio.  It’s important for the institution to be able to demonstrate to interested parties the valuable work their scholars are doing.  The connection to OA is that the current restrictive copyright contracts publishers send to authors frequently make it impossible to include their works in the IR.  The SPARC Addendum addresses this, but an institution can also address this concern by making it a mandate that all scholarly work done while at their institution be deposited in the repository.  This gives the author a prior commitment that is usually already covered in the contract.  A pioneer in the world of IRs is MIT’s IR: DSpace.  Check them out to get a feel for what an IR is like.

So what do I think about all of this?  I can understand and sympathize with all three sides (universities, scholars, and publishers).  The publishers are concerned that they will go out of business if everything is available immediately in OA.  As an indie author, I can easily see how valid that concern is.  Frankly if OA does take off the way, say, literary zines have, most journals will go out of business.  Yes a few big name zines are still surviving, and most zines also sell a print version and do alright with that, but publishing as we know it must change for OA to take hold.  Of course one doesn’t want that in one’s own industry.

I can also understand the dual view scholars hold.  Academic journals are peer-reviewed, and while OA journals can be, they aren’t necessarily.  OA can seem like a scary free-for-all with no verification of facts or quality.  Things don’t always become popular because they’re good.  But on the other hand if your audience is other scholars, aka the peer part of peer-review, then it should work itself out anyway.  Not to mention the fact that OA journals can mandate peer-review if they want to.  Similarly, I get it that scholars usually want to share their work with anyone interested and to that end want to post the pdfs on their website.  The problem is, though, if a person can get your article just by googling it and going to you instead of the publisher then we’re right back to putting the publisher who published you in the first place out of business.  But if publishing changes the way we think it will, then that would be a moot point anyway.

As far as IRs go, I truly see their value for gray literature.  Things like posters from poster sessions, dissertations and theses that are frequently not available or searchable otherwise, etc… but I also think an institution obsessively collecting a copy of everything every scholar has done is a bit redundant.  Not that the institution shouldn’t ever broaden to that level of collection and archiving, but since IRs are so new, it might be better to focus in on the gray literature for now.

Overall though the change won’t really happen until institutions start accepting OA publications in the tenure process. Until that point all scholars must publish in traditional journals in order to secure tenure.  It seems to me that the power is really in the hands of the universities.  The universities must decide: what do we want true scholarship and academic achievement look like in the 21st century?