I've written many times over the years about the problems with The Intern Economy. Unpaid internships, which are especially rampant in fields like journalism and politics, are a class barrier that limits participation in a profession to young people who have external financial support. It doesn't say that explicitly, but we know exactly who can afford to live in very expensive cities (DC, Washington, London, LA, etc) for a year or two without getting paid.

As a general (but not absolute) rule, I don't write letters of recommendation for unpaid internships. More than a few people have criticized me for that over the years. Before I go on, let me point out that in the worst case for the student I simply get the department chair or another senior faculty member to write a letter. So it's not like the students are being turned out into the cold streets to die of exposure on my account.

I know it's an irritating stand to take. But think about it this way.

Suppose a student came asking for a recommendation for the Jordan Peterson Men's Rights and Eugenics Fellowship for Pale Young Virgin Boys. Or the Sons of the Confederacy Definitely Not Just for White People Scholarship. Or the Bob Jones University Gay Bashing and Fly Fishing Camp. What are my ethical obligation in that case?

Aside from the fact that nothing in any faculty contract obligates a faculty member to write a recommendation letter for any student, I'd venture that instead of being criticized for declining to write it I'd be subject to some form of public dragging if I did sign off on these examples. If any opportunity requiring a faculty recommendation was implicitly limited to only men, only white people, etc or was for an explicitly immoral purpose, no one would seriously question my refusal to provide a letter with the exception of aggrieved right wingers (Charlie Kirk would be en route to campus in a heartbeat, Ben Shapiro in tow).

It has never been clear to me why in terms of discrimination, diversity, and representation so many academics can see clearly things like race, gender, or sexual orientation while class apparently just isn't a thing. If a particular opportunity for professional entry / advancement is open only to people who cross a parental income threshold, it's not open to everyone. I won't call it "discriminatory" because throwing words like that around too often cheapens them, but it's certainly not something that gives every interested student a legitimate chance to get it.

We covered some of this same ground in last week's Lena Dunham post, and those points hold here. Unpaid internships are how you get entire professions lacking any meaningful diversity, drawn from the same elevated socioeconomic bubble, and full of assumptions that fail to hold for anyone who doesn't get a big external boost at crucial times in their lives.

I understand that a one-man crusade does nothing to solve the problem and ultimately, as an academic advisor, students get whatever they need to pursue whatever opportunity they want. If I don't want to write a letter I explain why and get them a better letter from senior faculty (nobody cares about the recommendation of a no-name assistant professor anyway). It's my way of trying to draw attention to how utterly unequal this system is in ways that would be readily apparent throughout my profession if, instead of class and wealth, we were talking about gender or race.

15 thoughts on “DRAW THE LINE”

  • Unpaid internships by design filter for children born into economic good fortune, to keep out the "Riff-Raff". It also reveals either a misunderstanding of genetics worthy of being mocked by 19th century pig farmers, or truly epic sucking up.

  • I don’t think you’re necessarily dicking anybody over even if they can’t get a recommendation elsewhere. If their parents can afford to float them in an expensive city, they’ll probably be fine.

    I assume you make exceptions for when less advantaged students manage to secure funding (via grants, etc)?

  • Several years ago there was a story out of Yale about a rare undergrad, a young working-class white woman from Appalachia who worked in the dining halls' kitchens for four years. Despite their racial differences, she was very comfortable with her (mostly-black) kitchen colleagues at Yale. While most of the workers were from New Haven's adjacent ghetto, some combination of diligence, a shared gender, and a shared class made her a perfect fit.

  • … but Ed, with respect to wealth and class, we *are* talking about gender and race, oh wait, I see what you did there…

    Fun fact, I actually turned down an unpaid internship in ATL with the Children’s Hospital when I was a wee lad for exactly these reasons.

    There are worse windmills to tilt at.

  • I have been screaming about this for years.

    The same goes for anyone who intends to do anything in fine art (or anything objectively important to the history of civilization, really)—you can’t just take a year off to build your portfolio, network, hope to kiss the right asses at the right time to catch a break without already being independently wealthy, inheriting a lot of money, or marrying someone rich. If you’re not already of the upper crust, it was never designed to include you.

  • How the hell else does a career pathway almost exclusively reserved for the privileged upper class maintain its position as such? I mean, how would politics look if 'anyone' could be an intern easily and readily. What would the Hope Hicks' of the world do then? Huh? Huh?

  • Our national mythology denies the existence of class so we use race as a stand-in. It works great for it's design function: dividing labor against itself. It's maintained among the upper classes by a desire to keep their wealth, in the middle by their status as "temporarily embarrassed capitalists" and in the lower by Fox News.

  • This is also true of the risk taking entrepreneurial class. Most of them are people who have the resources to quit work and take the time to develop a new business. That, at least, means they have savings and credit. It also means they are likely to have fallback employment. Relatively few people manage to set up a business from the ground up. If you look at the ones who get written up in the business press, just about all of them are pretty well off.

    P.S. California puts serious limits on unpaid internships. They basically have to have an educational focus and be accredited by a school or other organization and not aimed or controlled by or to the benefit of a particular company.

  • Similar issue in the world of professional librarianship. Vast majority of librarian jobs require professional degrees, but the job market is so saturated with qualified applicants, the only way for some would-be librarians to obtain such a position is to start out as a volunteer or hourly employee, and then bide your time as you wait for a salaried, permanent librarian gig to open up. This is an open secret in the world of public librarianship, where people with master's degrees will work in PT library associate positions for years. And outside applicants (rarely) have a chance unless the position is so specialized the hiring managers have to broaden the applicant pool; in most public libraries, any general librarian position is going to the person with the MLIS who has been waiting in the wings. Compounding the problem are the library managers who love having a stable pool of employees who can do librarian work but at half or none of the salary, as well as the MLIS programs that keep churning out hundreds of graduates every semester for jobs that don't exist. This means there are far too many well-qualified MLIS holders who wind up abandoning the profession (if they ever even entered it in the first place) because they can't afford to "work" as a volunteer or hourly employee in the hopes that an actual job will materialize.

  • In my world of social work, not only are most internships not paid, they are part of the curriculum, meaning they are part of a class so the students pay tuition to work for free for various agencies. My county recently began offering paid internships in certain situations.

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