October 04, 2006
Notes of a native daughter
Posted by Usha Rodrigues

Although relatively new to the academy, I’ve already had numerous conversations with fellow prawfs and profs about the high percentage of academics who have an academic parent. I myself am doubly blessed: my father taught English at Georgetown University for over 25 years. My mother worked at NIH during my early childhood years, but she later taught at the University of Maryland. Has anyone else noticed this phenomenon of professors begetting professors?

Accepting the anecdotal as representative, so what? Over at Prawfsblawg, Bill Araiza stirred up a little controversy by raising the specter of socio-economic class playing a role in the making of a prawf. (For a socio-economic look at college admissions from a fellow faculty-brat, see here.) Do ivory towers class barriers make? (or research agendas a cage?—sorry, couldn’t resist, child of English professor, see above). The socio-economic claim actually has two parts: 1) economic: certain types of people have more money/time to pursue scholarly work; and 2) socio: this is a pretty rarefied world, and some of its demands can be confusing and scary to the uninitiated, even if they are moneyed.

The economic claim seems pretty uncontroversial, simply as a descriptive matter. If you have 3 children and/or your mother is sick and needs caretaking, you may not be able to take time out to write or take 5 years “off” to get a Ph.D. The “socio”-claim resonates with me, as well. I remember being intimidated during my first days of law school by my many classmates who were children of lawyers and judges. They already seemed familiar with this strange new world, with its summary judgments and dicta and holdings. Conversely, I feel fairly comfortable in the world of academic discourse, and I think I have my parents to thank for that.

These observations do not mean that we need to let the overworked, underpaid, non-faculty-brat hordes pour into the academy, or that we have lower standards for them. They do raise some questions for me, though. 1) Are professors creating their own academic class and becoming increasingly out of touch with “regular folks”? 2) A variant of the old nature/nurture debate: Did my parents pass on some sort of “academic” (“bookish”? “nerdy”?) gene? Or was it because I spent so much of my childhood on Georgetown’s campus that I developed such an affinity for old stone buildings and grassy quads? 3) Is this no big deal? Children tend to follow their parents’ career paths (look at all the second and third generation doctors, lawyers, and military men and women out there), and academia is just the family business.

No matter what the reason, a smile always creeps across my face when I set foot on a campus, any campus. It feels like home.

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Comments (8)

1. Posted by anona on October 4, 2006 @ 14:58 | Permalink

I always find this sort of post interesting - the idea is to start a discussion and then squash it - the whole subject makes most academics very uncomfortable and nobody is willing to acknowledge the 800 pound gorilla in the room.

But that said, here goes: It's basically elitism - see C. Wright Mills' voluminous work on this matter. If anyone is having trouble understanding the intangible aspects of how elitism works in keeping elites begetting elites (and non-elites begetting non-elites), see Alfred Lubrano's "In Limbo" for an interesting and very accessible read on the problems faced by working class people who have the audacity to try to move into elite positions such as academics. Alternatively, one could just check out Jeff Harrison's Class Bias in Academia blog (he's also found on the Moneylaw blog).

Those who dont think that elitism runs rampant in academia are just fooling themselves (and perhaps each other). Ironically, the most deeply self denying people on this matter are often the few who have crossed over from non-elitist backgrounds and suffer from what can only be described as a "Stockholm Syndrome" of sorts. As a great man (George Costanza, actually) once said, "If you believe it, then it's not really a lie."

2. Posted by David Zaring on October 4, 2006 @ 19:52 | Permalink

I confess to being a faculty brat as well, which makes my idiosyncratic Iowan origins a little less exotic, I'll grant you.

I don't know if academia is any more self-replicating than any other profession, but I do suspect that there are plenty of advantages to taking over the family store that have nothing to do with whether your parents can call someone the first time you go on the market - so I disagree with the elitism point above. You do, however, get a sense of what's interesting by osmosis, you know that the house is likely to have Persian rugs and that the suits should be threadbare ... I'd be the last to say that this stuff doesn't matter when you're starting a faculty career, because it amounts to a big head start in showing the right demeanor and interests. I don't think it can compensate for a bad research agenda, or even crowd out good ones - but it may create a helpful internal editor.

So I'd say - and you'd expect this, of course - that though it may make a difference, that doesn't mean the profession any more problematic than most.

3. Posted by Orin Kerr on October 5, 2006 @ 0:58 | Permalink

I've heard us referred to as "proffspring."

4. Posted by Jeremy Telman on October 5, 2006 @ 6:01 | Permalink

I largely agree with David's comments, but I think his conclusions downplay the significance of demeanor and interests -- or I would cite to my favorite sociologist of the professions, Pierre Bourdieu, and call is habitus. Whatever you call it, I think knowing how to act among academics is especially important at the interview stage.

I haven't experienced the sorts of things Ann describes. On the contrary, I have the impression that my professors and colleagues like the fact that I do not have an "elite" background. But what do I know?

The main area where I agree with David is that I think that there is nothing unique about the academy in this regard. In the legal academy, I think coming from a family of legal academics puts you at the top of the pile. After that, coming from a family of lawyers might be just as useful as coming from a family of non-legal academics.

I also think that the cultural reproduction involved in this process does produce a certain normative narrowing in the profession (again, nothing unusual here). David says that the preference for "proffspring," as Orin puts it, does not crowd out good research agendas. I wonder, how would we know, since the academy determines what a good research agenda is and then immediately recognizes the research agendas of the proffsping as good ones? The academy might not recognize a great research agenda that does not follow established criteria.

5. Posted by Jeremy Telman on October 5, 2006 @ 6:16 | Permalink

Just popping back to note that I in fact don't recall any professor I've ever had ever inquiring about my parents' professional background. I'm sure it came up in conversations, but probably because I am proud of who my parents are (even though they are not academics), and so I talk about them.

6. Posted by William Henderson on October 5, 2006 @ 9:21 | Permalink

A couple of years ago, Brian Leiter started a thread the compiled a list of "law professor families." It is here:

7. Posted by wannabelawprof on October 5, 2006 @ 9:24 | Permalink

As someone who is currently seeking a law professor job, it becomes very clear how many different ways class figures into the equation.

If you attended a state school for undergrad, it doesn't look as nice as a degree from Princeton or Swarthmore. You probably didn't get the same-big name recommenders on your CV as other candidates (not that undergrad recommenders matter as much).

If you attended a state school for law school (even a very good one like Berkeley, Michigan, or Virginia), it doesn't have the same sparkle as a degree from Yale or Harvard. You might even have been admitted to those prestigous private institutions, but finances dictated you go a different direction. Having gone to a state school as an undergrad, you might have had a harder time getting to an elite private school compared to a student at an elite private undergrad. And, again, you might not have the same big name recommenders on your CV.

If you had a full- or part-time job while in undergrad, your grades probably suffered.

If you had a full- or part-time job in law shcool, your grades probably suffered. And you may not have had time to do all the nice extra things to pad your CV (law review, clerkship, etc.). Most importantly, you may not have had time to form those relationships with professors who would promote your candidacy in the future.

If you had extended or immediate family members to support, it probably detracted from your academic performance. It also meant you probably had less job options (since you had to support others) including a low-paying clerkship.

Since you were busy working and trying to make ends meet, you might not have planned to be a law professor all along. In that case, you have to overcome the fact that you might not have focused on doing the things you needed to do (network with big name profs, get on editorial board on law review, keep focusing on your grades your 3rd year to get some high honors, etc.).

None of this is to say hiring committees should ignore all the criteria that are class-biased. Grades matter. Some pedigree matters. But given how small the margin is between getting hired and not getting a job at all in a VERY competitive field, I think hiring committees should be aware that their criteria are FAR from class-neutral.

I think class is another reason why a Moneyball approach to hiring better rewards merit and scholarly potential. Although a Moneyball approach still relies on many of the same proxies by relying on article placement (since pedigree can substantially affect where an article is placed). However, all things considered, a Moneyball approach probably decreases the effects of class on hiring in a substantial manner since it is easier to focus on becoming an academic once you are earning the big bucks.

8. Posted by Gordon Smith on October 9, 2006 @ 15:25 | Permalink

As a general rule, I don't like deleting comments. Once they are deleted, we cannot bring them back. In this instance, a comment was deleted at the request of the commenter, which removed the context for several subsequent comments. That lead to a request from another commenter to delete those subsequent comments. We have decided to honor that request. I apologize if you came here some another blog expecting to read the exchange.

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