Tribes, Classes, and Networking

Via Jessa Crispin on Twitter, there’s a really excellent article in the Paris Review about Harvard and Class:

When I applied, I thought it would be great because I would get to meet lots of smart people. Those were the kinds of people I liked to be friends with, and I thought there would be more of them there. That was the main reason I thought it would be a fun place to be. I don’t think I was super ambitious or professional minded or even a very good student.

The thing I figured out soon after I applied was that, on Gilligan’s Island, it wasn’t the Professor who went to Harvard, it was Mr. Howell, the rich man. That was something of a revelation.

It’s funny, because what a lot of people talk about when they talk about going to Harvard is being really intimidated by the place when they arrive. I wasn’t at all intimidated by the place when I arrived–but I was really intimidated after graduating.

It’s a great piece, and resonates with some of my experiences at Williams, back in the day. Not all of them, of course– obviously, the city bits aren’t remotely applicable to Williamstown, and I’m less ambivalent about the experience than he is. But there’s a lot of good stuff in there, and it’s well worth reading for some insight into the experience of elite higher education.

A couple other bits that struck me as really good include this bit about class:

Now, America really has an upper class, though they don’t like to talk about it much. And class in America is pretty fluid, so people at Harvard really do come from different backgrounds. There are people there whose families have gone to Harvard for generations and who run the world, and there are people there from pretty middle-class backgrounds, and there are people there who are the first person in their family to go to college.

A thing that’s very nice and very terrible is that those class differences are very rarely talked about at Harvard. So you might have some sort of movie image where the snobs are sort of looking down their noses at the poor kids, but the reality is that once you’re at Harvard, no one’s a poor kid anymore. You’re all, instantly and at that moment, in one of the most privileged positions of the American upper class.

Again, this rings true, though within some limits. While it was true that, for the most part, there wasn’t a huge social gulf between classes when I was at Williams, there were always a few people who wouldn’t give me the time of day because I was a back-country rube, and it was usually pretty obvious who had lots of money and who didn’t. The college did a pretty good job of mixing people up, though, so it wasn’t a very stratified campus.

And as the author says, there’s some extent to which having been there is a leveler. That is, there are people who made it very clear they didn’t want anything to do with me when I was a freshman from a hick town in central New York who I’ve had surprisingly pleasant interactions with in the years since we’ve graduated. So, you know, chalk up a small point for class mobility.

The class-signaling aspect of the whole elite higher ed thing is hardly an original point, but it’s probably worth repeating. Just before running into the Paris Review piece, I read the Locus interview with Lev Grossman, which includes this funny explanation of his Harvard and Yale education:

I try to explain that I belong to a certain weird ethnic tribe: hyperacademic people who live in the suburbs in the northeastern United States. In some tribes, you wear brass rings until your neck is a foot long; in other tribes, you go to Harvard and Yale. That is the custom among my people, and that’s what I did.

(Transcribed from the print copy, as it’s not in the online excerpts.)

There’s a lot to this aspect of elite higher education, though as Grossman notes this extends beyond the merely rich to the “hyperacademic” as well. It’s not just rich people and their kids who go to Harvard and Yale (and Williams and Union), it’s also the children of the educated, and that makes a difference. God knows there were some upper-class twits in my classes at Williams, but there were also a lot of really, really smart people. It’s not all Mr. Howells, and that atmosphere of being surrounded by smart people all the time was a fantastic experience.

Of course, as the Paris Review piece notes, all this stuff has material consequences, within some constraints:

So much of the world works around social networks. Harvard functions as a crossroads early in life through which the people who are going to be the most privileged people in America can meet and form social bonds. And it’s nice in a way that there is a real effort to bring new people into that system. I guess. I suppose that a meritocratic elitism is a little better than a purely inherited or wealth-based elitism.

If you go to Harvard and then you live in New York, no matter what you do, the fact remains that you will have old college friends who are in the top positions in whatever field of endeavor you’re concerned with. If you’re twenty-five, you’ll know people who are getting their first pieces published in The New Yorker. If you’re forty, you’ll know people who are editors of The New Yorker. You will know people who are affiliated with every level of government. And across the board, just everywhere, you will know some people at the top of everything.

But in Canada, if you went to Harvard, it’s just a weird novelty, a strange fact about you, like that you’re a member of Mensa or you have an extra thumb. There’s no Harvard community here.

This is somewhat less true of smaller elite colleges, just from a statistical point of view– there aren’t as many students graduating from Williams as Harvard, so there isn’t quite the same dominance. And going into academia is at least as effective as moving to Canada as a way to render those connections less useful– there aren’t all that many ways that alumni connections could help my career. If I ever luck into a billion dollars, though, I know a lot of people who could help me invest it.

But the importance of networks can’t really be completely neglected, which intersects with another thing I read recently, from Nick Mamatas on LiveJournal, talking about an author acquaintance who got a story published because Mamatas happened to mention an anthology project to him:

It struck me that on a couple of levels, this is how things get done. On the first instance, it’s merely just doing something. “Say, you can do this” someone says, and then you do it. Or you don’t–you daydream about it, or decide it not worth doing (and hardly everything is, of course), or you futz and faff around and then opportunity passes you by, or the algebra of living works against you and you can’t do it. If you have children, or two or three jobs, or no job at all and no juice to try something new after a ten months of being pummeled by the fists of indifference…

On the other level, there’s who gets to hear, “Say, you can do this.” It’s easy enough to find submission guidelines on the Internet…if you have the Internet. But lots of people need an extra kick, a “Go ahead!” at least occasionally. And some good writers do too, not just beginners or whiners. [...] This sort of social networking–just a web of acquaintanceships and friendships, has immense value. Of course, this value doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with quality. Networks, online especially, also offer many opportunities for hilarity, especially now that CEOs and PR people and Presidential candidates and famous authors can gloriously rage and hate and ruin themselves.

I go back and forth on the importance of “networking,” which is one of those slightly dubious verbs spawned and rendered nearly meaningless by the business community. To the extent that it means anything at all, it seems to mean “knowing people who might someday be helpful to you,” which is kind of a difficult thing to teach in classes and workshops. It’s hard to systematize what is, essentially, a matter of luck– going to the same school as somebody who ends up editing an anthology that could use a contribution from somebody like an author you know, or whatever. The formation of social networks is something that seems to just happen, and too many attempts to force it just end up seeming cynical.

And yet, the importance of those networks is undeniable, and I suppose there are some skills involved in making use of accidental connections that could be taught. There’s a certain etiquette to asking for or offering help, and I suspect that while you can’t really capture the entire thing in a system of easily communicable rules, you can probably construct a set of simple instructions that would help people avoid the worst pitfalls. I should probably arrange to sit in on one of the networking sessions the Career Center runs, just to see what, exactly, they’re telling our students. (In my copious free time…)

This is beginning to ramble, so I’ll stop here. I don’t know that I have a coherent point beyond the fact that these are all interesting articles that I ran across in the last little bit, that seem to connect in ways that probably don’t make sense to anyone else. But you should definitely read that Paris Review piece.


  1. #1 Eric Lund
    July 14, 2011

    But in Canada, if you went to Harvard, it’s just a weird novelty, a strange fact about you, like that you’re a member of Mensa or you have an extra thumb. There’s no Harvard community here.

    Color me skeptical. I don’t have any past affiliation with Harvard, but I do with some of Harvard’s peer institutions, and they certainly encourage networking in places outside the US. Okay, if you have chosen to live in Halifax or Iqaluit or even Edmonton, there probably won’t be that much of a Harvard alumni presence in the area. But the author of that article lives in Toronto, which is Canada’s commercial capital. I would be surprised if there were no Harvard alumni network in the Toronto area, just as I would assume that the Harvard Alumni Association would have a presence in places like London or Tokyo. Granted, the Harvard community won’t be as extensive in Toronto as in New York, but it should be there. For instance, Michael Ignatieff, whom the author mentions by name, spent some time at Harvard before becoming MP from a Toronto area riding (Etobicoke-Lakeshore, according to Wikipedia) and leader of the Liberal party.

  2. #2 Becca Stareyes
    July 14, 2011

    Reminds me of talking to a friend last night, who noted that I’m a Cornell grad student, and that she would never have the guts to apply to a ‘big, famous’ school like that for grad school*. I don’t recall giving it much thought besides ‘Cornell has a good program, and hey, Carl Sagan’, despite being from the University of Great-Plains-State.

    Granted, my dad was a Harvard PhD and a professor so I was used to being around academics. Plus four years of hanging out with physics/math professors and their students, so I was in the ‘I am a future academic’ mode.

    * Granted, I’m in the sciences. If I were in the humanities I might have reconsidered, because then I’d have to pay my own tuition.

  3. #3 Eric Lund
    July 14, 2011

    If I were in the humanities I might have reconsidered, because then I’d have to pay my own tuition.

    At least a Cornell Ph.D. would offer you some chance of recouping your investment. I hear through the grapevine that unless your Ph.D. is from one of a handful of elite universities (Ivy League, MIT, Stanford, Chicago, and maybe one or two others) your chances of landing a tenure track job in most humanities fields is just about nil. There is also a good chance you could get some of it paid for through teaching assistantships (I don’t know about Cornell, but Harvard is notorious for having TAs rather than professors teach intro level courses) or fellowships.

    My present employer, as part of a budget cutting exercise, is seriously considering wholesale elimination of several graduate programs. One of the programs mentioned as a likely cut happens to be our highest ranked Ph.D. program, in history–because it’s not ranked highly enough for its graduates to get jobs. (That’s not true of our low-ranked physics department; our physics Ph.D. recipients are finding jobs in physics, mainly because we are very good at my particular subspecialty even though we are thoroughly mediocre in other, more popular areas of physics.) Also, the need for many students to remain on teaching assistantships well into what should be the research phase of the program means that the program is a money sink rather than a money source (again, that’s not true of physics, where our faculty get grants to support the students).

  4. #4 Dale Sheldon-Hess
    July 14, 2011

    “…and class in America is pretty fluid…”

    Class “fluidity” is measurable. And in America, it is not especially high.

    (Check page 7 (labeled as page 2.))

    The American Dream, alive and well… in Denmark.

  5. #5 Kaleberg
    July 16, 2011

    He ignored the other class issue at Harvard. At least when I had friends going there, the freshman dormitories were isolated in the yard, supposedly to build class – i.e. year of admission – cohesion and encourage donations. An awful lot of Harvard life seemed oriented about encouraging future alumni contributors. (I had one dinner on the Harvard meal plan, borrowing a friend’s card, and the food was terrible. I don’t think I could have cut it there.)

    So now this guy is writing for the Paris Review. If he ever gets to their eponymous city he should see if he runs into anyone from the Ecole Polytechnique. Every country has a school or two like that with outsize influence. In England they have Oxford and Cambridge, and Japan has Tokyo University. The United States is bigger, so we have the Ivies along with MIT, Caltech and a few others. In engineering, I know Canada has McGill. I’m not sure what the other powerhouse universities are, but I’m sure they exist.