Saturday, March 24, 2007

On being a public figure

So apparently I'm still adapting to being a, like, authority figure--or whatever it is that I am--because I'm having a really hard time remembering that, when I'm two miles from campus and someone cuts me off at a light in a particularly jerky and dangerous fashion, I maybe shouldn't give him the finger. Especially when he has an RU hangtag on his rearview mirror, color-coded to indicate "student."

And when another student fails to brake at the crosswalk that I'm just entering? It would probably be advisable not to mutter, loudly, "thanks a lot, bitch." Because even if the driver has her windows rolled up and is well past me by the time I say it, there might be other pedestrians nearby. And it's probably a bad policy, as a faculty member, to become known as someone who goes around cursing out students.

Those things are obvious, I suppose, and maybe it's less about my adjusting to being An Adult than it is to living in a slightly less impatient and profane city than the ones where I most recently dwelt. But as Evey and I were discussing at the bar a couple of months ago--and this conversation is not to be mistaken for any one of the dozen of other conversations that we've had at some bar or other in the last few months (God bless her for existing, a certain blogger for introducing us, and New City for having watering holes that we still haven't visited)--being a professor is one of the more obscure jobs that one can have while yet feeling oneself to be uncomfortably in the public eye.

Our students Google us. They gossip and speculate and trade stories about us. One of my students--and of course I shouldn't know this, but I do--quotes me, twice, in her Facebook profile (I guess she thinks I'm funny). But it's not only them: as fellow academics, we all Google each other when we're assigned to panels with people we've never heard of, or after meeting people at conferences, or when we come across a novel or interesting or terrible essay in one of our journals.

For a long while, toiling away in obscurity on my dissertation, I longed to have a public presence in this profession. I used to Google myself regularly, waiting to exist in the world at least as a name in a conference program somewhere; some while later, I started checking the MLA database obsessively, waiting for my first couple of publications to show up and confirm that, yes, I was out there, doing something.

So now, for what it's worth, I exist. My Google and MLA database trail isn't vast, and neither is it entirely up to date, but it gives what you might call my academic vital statistics. But now that I have some kind of a public image, I'm nervous about it: whenever I think about posting something to a list-serv or a website or a wiki under my own name, I hesitate: would I want that to come up when someone searches for me?

And although I live a goodly distance from RU, I look over my shoulder when I'm out at a bar or a restaurant. I wonder whether what I'm wearing is too tight or low-cut, or whether I'm being too loud or drinking too much, in the event that I should run into a student.

Maybe I'm crazy-paranoid (and I probably am, as only the narcissistic can truly be paranoid), but the point I'm making here is surely true even for the less paranoid and narcissistic among us. Most of my non-academic friends--even the quite successful among them--don't think this way, and many of them barely exist in Google; moreover, they can be pretty confident that the only people searching for them are exes or long-lost friends or their most recent dates from They may be important in their various spheres, but they aren't public figures in the way--even the very, very minor way--that those of us who teach and lecture and publish and present are. We have public, performed selves to a different degree, and the fact that the primary audience for those performed selves isn't our peers, but our students, makes the always-present gulf between the public and the private that much more stark and that much more problematic.

Which is to say? Maybe only this: I kinda hate having to act like a respectable person.


Simplicius said...

Nor do they have teenagers writing very public comments about them at or or RMP is something even our esteemed senior colleagues didn't have to deal with.

slantgirl said...

aiieee does this resonate! my new city is also a really awesome fun city, and i live and hang out in an area in which many of my students live. one of my students last term was a bartender at my favourite bar, another routinely saw me when she was taking smoke breaks at her waitressing job (next to my grocer), and i always bump into a few when i hit the bar with my colleagues.

it's sort of like when i was a teenager skiving off school or sneaking a cigarette, hoping my parent's friends wouldn't see me!

it also freaks me out to google myself, especially around certain keywords, and see that i do have a persona that i perhaps might not want to have out there in its current form.

luckily, i work at a uni where having a real life and being a real person is privileged. also, i work in a small field where most folks already know my business!

but there are days i'd like to go back to being completely anonymous..

gretchen said...

yes yes yes...we moved to basically small town (though it's technically city) after living in serious big city for years when my partner got excellent job worth moving for...and while i'm finishing my diss and thus still have some relative peace, i get rated, my students wait on me, i can't escape the dept. EVER. i miss anonymity more than anything else. not to mention people who can drive and a place where you can flip them off and not worry that they might pull their shotgun out of their pick up.

squadratomagico said...

I have a strangely hybrid public life, and I anticipate, with some amusement, the day when the two halves of it encounter one another. I recently joined a countercultural circus that performs once a month in my city. Someday soon, a colleague or student will come see me perform, and I'm not sure how I'll feel about it. But I refuse to self-censor, in word or in deed, when this is something I love doing. My real name is on the circus website, and I put circus fliers on my office door on campus.

Since I've been on leave all year, and only joined the circus about six months ago, few colleagues know about it. I'll interested to see their reactions if anyone ever attends a show. It's a strange thing to have on my google profile, not entirely dignified, I suppose. But I just don't give a crap!

Flavia said...

Simplicius: yes, bugs the shit out of me, even after I bothered to go to the site's FAQs and learn how their ratings actually work (ex: how chili peppers are calculated--it's not how you think!--and which ratings categories are factored into the "overall quality" category). It's a better-designed system than I'd initially thought, and I don't actually have a problem with my own scores. . . but I dislike the site's very public nature and the way that it encourages students idly to pass judgements (including specifically sexualized ones) on their instructors.

Squadrato: your comment reminds me of a guy I was once on a panel with. He had an unusual name, and when I Googled him one of the sites that came up was all about a guy who was a banjo player in a bluegrass band in a certain metropolitan area. At the top of that page it said, "if you're looking for John Doe, the Shakespearean, or John Doe, the professor at Whatever University, you won't find him here--go to [his university webpage]." It was the same guy, but he'd clearly decided to formally separate those two identities.

And finally to the new commenters--welcome!

Earnest English said...

YES! I feel this way as a grad student too in Grad City. The person I'm flipping off might be a student, sure, but also might be a professor in my department. And I come from a place where flipping people off is pretty normal. I was walking down the street on Wednesday night, and I heard someone in a car squeal: "there's my TA!" Sigh.

Dance said...

Total agreement. Thanks for articulating this--and it's something I feel most strongly as junior faculty. I felt more allowed to have a private life as a grad student.

I've been operating a separate identity for the last few years, to do some volunteer work while protecting my google rep as a professor. I was fine with two identities, but now I'm working on developing a third one, for blogging and commenting, and it's a bit disconcerting to have to decide to what extent I will let those identities meet each other.

(frequent reader, maybe delurking--I might have commented before as Dee, not sure)

StyleyGeek said...

the point I'm making here is surely true even for the less paranoid and narcissistic among us

Are there any? Surely not!

Flavia said...

Earnest E:

Your story reminds me of a scene in the movie Groove (which is about a spur-of-the-moment rave in the Bay Area): waiting on line outside the warehouse where the party is to occur is a skinny nerdy science grad student. A small Asian woman in some kind of weird headgear passes by and says, in a high, childish voice, "Hey! HEY! Aren't you a TA for Chem 201? You are!!" (He denies it.)

During my own clubbing days, I was always, and profoundly, grateful that my grad institution wasn't actually in or near the city in which said activities occurred.

anthony grafton said...

Great post, as always. And please note: there's a larger public realm in which you live as well, and which also has its discomforts. Just wait until your book appears, for example, and the TLS reviewer likes it but criticizes one chapter--and everyone you've ever heard of or met, from your mother to your mentor, notices the criticism and ignores the rest. It will feel as if the whole world--or at least the whole, tiny world of letters that we live and work in--is paying as much attention to you as the most obsessed student could. Enjoy!

Anonymous said...

And it's true, too! This is, indeed, one difficult profession, so very taxing, mentally especially. More booze!

dhawhee said...

awesome. I so relate. One day about a year ago I honked loudly at an SUV driver who took a presumptuous left right in front of me, and it turned out to be my colleague. (I hadn't known she drove such a monster.) And then--the grumpy same day--at a four-way stop to which I was clearly the first arrival, I locked eyes and stuck out my jaw and gunned my accelerator when the driver to my left tried to go first. That driver? Another colleague.

Barry said...

Luckily, acting like a non-respectable person can actually increase your respect. I went up enormously in the eyes of some of my students the day I stumbled into the coffee shop they were working in, and confessed that I was still on my way home from the night before.

I've encountered other benefits as well, particularly mysterious discounts in the various shops and bars where I encounter students behind the bar, given more out of their sense of self-preservation than any popularity on my part.

At least I am no longer young enough to think "that girl smiled at me, I wonder if I should ask her out", only to find that she smiled at recognising her teacher.

caraf said...

I can't believe nobody has mentioned the worst "public" site of all: the gym! I used to console myself that "they" were more horrified to see me than I was to see them. Until one day I ran into a half-naked student of mine in the locker room, who proceeded not only to say hi but to ask a series of detailed questions about next week's paper assignment. All while wearing a bra, and nothing else.

Flavia said...


That's the funniest story I've heard in a long time. But not one I envy you!


I'm considering writing a second post on this very issue--but I think that there's a strongly gendered component here. My partner hangs out at the bar with his (of-age) students and a few of them have been known to call him on his cell phone to invite him out or even just to chat. But you know, when he goes back into the classroom he's still a 6'4'' guy with a deep voice in a jacket and tie. . . whereas I'm a slight, young woman. I don't have problems with my authority in the classroom, but I aim to keep it that way--and encouraging my students to think of me in more private contexts would not be helpful. Maybe in 10 years' time!


I think it must be a sign of either the age or the preoccupations of my readership that everyone is focusing on the embarrassment-in-front-of-students part of this post--I intended it, actually, to be equally about THAT public and our larger academic public. Both cause me some anxiety.

Dr. Virago said...

Late as usual...but just have to say that my favorite response to bad young drivers -- especially if they're a threat to me as a runner/pedestrian -- is "Oh boy, I hope you're never one of my students!" Not that I'd seek revenge through grades or anything, but I might embarrass them in front of the class by telling everyone what a bad driver and a menace to society they are! Tehee!

adjunct whore said...

i'd love to hear a follow up post on the private/public issue of prof/student's all very uncomfortable for me. i love teaching but i have absolutely no desire to be close with my students. is this bad? a sign of my coldness? i don't know--i feel like my private life is my own, i have no desire to share it with students, nor do i want to be their confidant. and i also agree this must in part be gendered.