Doing it in ‘Barnsley speak’: Social class, accents, and pedagogical relatedness in Higher Education

This paper draws on the lived experiences of two early-career academics from working class backgrounds to discuss both the triumphs and difficulties associated with being a ‘working class academic’ in the contemporary university. We discuss how structural inequalities within Higher Education typically frame the ‘working class academic’ as an ‘outsider from within’, with the inevitable struggle against imposter syndrome that this invokes. The paper offers a philosophical analysis of the positionality of working class academics, thus adding to a burgeoning area of research literature, and draws on the work of the sociologist Basil Bernstein to focus specifically on the power dynamics tied to regional accents.

While it is valuable in itself to add to the literature on working class academics’ experiences, the paper does move on to consider how having a shared class identity could prove to be transformative for staff-student relationships in HE, particularly for ‘non-traditional’ students (including mature students, care leavers, ethnic minority groups, ‘first in family’ students). Although the proportion of working class academics at different HEIs cannot be directly controlled through recruitment and promotion procedures, and in fact ‘social class’ is not typically ‘measured’ or accounted for, we argue that there are significant benefits for ‘non-traditional’ students when they can see themselves being represented and reflected in the academic workforce.

Drawing on real staff-student encounters, the paper will explore how being taught by someone from a working class background could go some way towards addressing ‘non-traditional’ students’ experiences of imposter syndrome. While working class academics are highly likely to have experienced ‘imposter syndrome’ themselves at some point in their professional journey, we argue that this experience can promote greater adaptability when working with mature students, students from ‘low-participation neighbourhoods’, and many other groups who have traditionally been excluded from Higher Education. Our purpose is not to negate the impact of those tutors from non-working class backgrounds, but rather to explore the idea that working class academics might be more readily relatable for, predominantly, ‘non- traditional’ students’. By exploring the benefits for ‘non-traditional’ students who are taught by working class academics, this paper will seek to reclaim the pedagogical value of regional accents, as well as arguing that adapting one’s teaching to suit different student cohorts categorically does not equate to ‘lowering standards’. We conclude by suggesting a number of pedagogical strategies which can be used to make university study more welcoming and relatable for ‘non-traditional’ students.