Academic Habitus in A Gift Economy

Recently I am in a mentorship committee, whose goal is to connect first year graduate students with more advanced graduate students in my grad program. This is my second year doing this job. My commitment is that to facilitate new students to acquire institutional knowledge faster from their peers. The idea of institutional knowledge transmission through socialization got me thinking more about the concept academic habitus by Pierre Bourdieu. He defined it in a book called Homo Academicus. Formally it is defined as followed:

[T]he university field… is intimately bound to the construction of academic habitus, which encourages the critical reflection of scholars and reveals that the supposed objective qualities of academic discourse is not impartial, but the by-product of an academic’s conformity to university norms and their position in the university’s hierarchy (29).

Bourdieu was much concerned with social reproduction. Whenever one has to think through how a social institution can reproduce itself, one can use Bourdieu’s various theories to think through their issues. In my case, while doing the voluntary job of organizing a mixer between first years and other graduate students, I think about how to reproduce the social institution of the academe at the graduate student level. I think about my experience, the pros and cons of my program, and hope to share what I have gone through so people can learn from it, and prevent bad outcomes to happen.

Graduate school trains students to become professors. It is the long, and arduous period before one is totally initiated into the profession. Fabio Rojas argues in his Grad Skool Rulz that one should think of grad school as a means to an end, which is to get a job as an academic. In other words the academic profession has its rules, culture, and peculiar ways of socializing newbies into it. Grad school which lasts multiple years often turns one from being an open-minded, inquisitive individuals into an academic who specializes in a little small thing of the intellectual world. Grad school turns people into knowledge producers. Each profession has its habitus, the academe is no exception . Sometimes one is preconditioned into certain professions. Paul Willis in his famous book Learning to Labor argues that working class kids getting working class jobs. Even though Willis doesn’t use a Bourdieusian framework, one could conceive that working class kids are socialized in certain social environments, which reinforce the ideal of certain jobs. Empirically, Matthew Desmonds studies wild firefighters and argues that both through training at work, and socializing during the job, firefighters could not become firefighters if they did not already have some qualities that help them in the job. There are certain ways of being that one must have learned before going into the job. In the case of wild firefighters, one salient aspect is their country masculinity. This is not something one could learn on the job. That particular characteristic is what one is socialized since childhood into.

What constitutes academic habitus?

I am still trying to answer this question myself. There are many aspects of being an academic. Sometimes you meet a person, and you hear this person argues, and you know that he is a lawyer. At another times, you get into a discussion, and you conclude that your interlocutor is an academic. The way one talks, conducts oneself, the words one uses show that one belongs to a profession. I was not born into an academic family. So it seems that in the institution of higher learning, I am acquiring all the characteristics of an academic there. That is I am not preconditioned to this profession. I am socialized into it through classes, teaching, doing research, applying for grants, and talking to my colleagues on a daily basis. One way to become an academic is to figure out a role model, and become that person. I have a few around me. They provide me with different quality that I would like to have. Gradually I start talking like them, thinking like them, and becoming more like them.

This conception of academic habitus makes me think about the fact that I am connecting first year students with more senior students. Students also transmit those characteristics.

One thing I learn being in academia is that it is a gift economy. Each academic receives help from many other academics. Academics tend to share information. This is the most surprising aspect of academia that I discovered in the past three years. At first I thought that because academia is full of arguments, and intellectual battles, people would not share much information with one another. I was dead wrong. The moment I landed in New York, the gift economy started operating on me, and made me a part of it. Information sharing ranges from where and how to find housing, which grant to apply to, who should I talk to, how to write a paper, how to save money and time, etc.  I got these bits and pieces of information from friends, friends of friends, and sometimes even strangers. The gift economy made me think that the biggest contribution that I could make to make the graduate school journey more pleasant is to “pay forward.” Since many people have helped me along the way, it became appropriate for met to think about how to help others.

Lately Fabio Rojas argued in one of his blog posts that diversity in hiring must start out at diversity in graduate school. As a woman of color, I recognize how much I need to do for other women of color. Mentoring in graduate school is most needed for people who are minority. This is important. Even in teaching, I am trying my best to advocate for students of color.  When they come to ask for recommendation letter for a summer course, a fellowship, an internship, I would try my best to do so despite how busy I am. Given how diverse CUNY’s student body is, every semester some students would ask for my recommendation letters. No matter how busy I am, I will write them a good letter.

Now having been in the profession as a trainee for more than three years, I realized that we’re in a paying-forward model. The academe is full of gift giving activities that other profession doesn’t have. In many ways, I realize that despite many setbacks, and that the university system is in deep crisis, it is still a very humane place to work. I am indeed happy in this profession.


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