Thursday, January 19, 2012

After the goofy, madcap, self-deprecatory shtick, what then?

As my professional cohort moves up in the world (in terms of age and career stability), it's struck me that a number of people--maybe myself included--are still working with a self-image and a public persona that don't really reflect reality. I know many an academic on the verge of tenure or just tenured, on the verge of a book contract or with one just out, who are still presenting themselves as adorable but humiliation-prone kids, forever embarrassing themselves in front of the big names. It's professional life as screwball comedy.

Now, I love me a screwball comedy and a madcap heroine--and to judge by my spouse I also love me a relentless, obstreperous goofball--but within the profession and among my peers I find this particular shtick, and the insecurity and immaturity that underlie it, to be getting old. In the same way that the roles of ingénue and wunderkind have their expiration date, so too does the role of loveable screwup.

Here's a cheat sheet to let you know when you've outgrown the part:
-you have tenure

-you have a book in print

-you've had more than one tenure-track job (assuming more than three years total)

-you advise doctoral students

-you've been an invited or keynote speaker

-you're on chit-chatty terms with senior scholars in your field

-you meet random people at conferences who know your work

If any one of the above--but especially if more than one!--is true, it's time to move on. You can still be zany and fun, playful and self-deprecating, and you can still shut down the conference bar every night. You can also, of course, still be prey to deep fears and anxieties. But you can't act like the new guy or gal, the brash or naive youngster, the one who will never be taken seriously.

It's someone else's turn. You've made it. Give way to the grad students and new PhDs.


Ianqui said...

Right on. This is so true, but it's so weird how there's such a lag between how we "young" people see ourselves and how the actually young people see us.

Flavia said...


Yeah, I know--and it strikes me that this is more true in our profession than in most. Partly that's because it takes so damn long to get a degree (and then a job, and then tenure...), and we're told over and over again how it's like an "apprenticeship." So we still feel like kids and/or imposters at a much older age than most people.

But I also think it has something to do with our weird work environments. In the classroom, we learn really quickly to think of ourselves as competent and in charge. But we don't interact with peers in our field/subfield very frequently (unlike people with normal office jobs), so this sense of being scholarly/intellectual newbies, or of being star-struck and tongue-tied in the presence of people whose work we admire, persists well past the acquisition of a tenure-track job and some solid publications.

Pantagruelle said...

Ack, I have the last 5 on your list (but am still working on thw first 2). When / how did that happen? I have had a slight sense of all this lately, but your post makes it feel more real than my feeble attempts to convince myself.

J. Otto Pohl said...

I have a couple books in print. The first one was published in 1997 and still gets cited a couple times a year by new publications. I also advise doctoral students. I have two right now. But, I think the rest of the list will never come. First of all we don't have tenure where I work. All the senior faculty are on six year contracts. I am also quite sure that I will remain an absolute nobody for the rest of my life. But, that is ok at least now I have a paying job that has an expiration date longer than a year. For the first three years after my PhD I could not even get an interview despite having two books in print.

J. Otto Pohl said...

Oops I misread number 5. I would not compare being a keynote speaker at a conference which I have not done with being an invited speaker. The keynote speaker is hard to get. Delivering an invited talk to organizations such as the Library of Congress or Middle East Institute is so easy that even I have about half a dozen of these on my CV.

Bardiac said...

I know more than one be-bereted poet who still wants to be the young turk well into their 50s+

Dr. Virago said...

Damn, guilty at charged. OK, will commence growing up in 5...4...3...

Dr. Virago said...

*as charged

Susan said...

It is a funny shift. About ten years ago, a friend noted to me that we had become the establishment, and we were both a bit horrified.

Renaissance Girl said...

Funny. I saw this dynamic at play in the one MLA session I attended. One of the presenters, a friend of mine, kept apologizing for hir relative newbie-ness in the company of two senior scholars, though s/he is clearly at this point an authority in hir field (for all these reasons you list, Flavia). Initially, I felt some sympathy with that gesture. But after the session concluded and I was able to say hello to folks, I realized, looking around the (packed! yes, packed!) room, that I knew more than half the people there, many of them BFD scholars. We've presented together, read one another's work, I've edited some of their essays for a volume, I've given lectures or readings or both at some of their schools. They greeted me as a colleague, and some even hugged me as if they were, you know, happy to see me. They asked about my book. In these natural interactions with people I've been talking with for a while, I didn't feel a trace of that "what if they discover I'm a fraud" panic. Just mutual interest of mind. And I was stunned to realize that I have grown into, you know, a part of that scholarly community, that I'm one of them. And that realization made the performance of ingenuity and apologetics by the presenter all the more dissonant to me.

Flavia said...

Bardiac: totally.

RG: yeah, it's embarrassing to witness, or at least some versions of it are--this post is meant to describe the general phenomenon, of which there are lots and lots of variants; there's Peter Pan-ism, there's girlish coquettery, there's blantant insecurity, there's wishful Young Turk-ism. . . etc.!

There's also a gender angle here, too, and my informal observations suggest that this tendency manifests differently (broadly speaking) among men and women: the women are more apt to act cute and goofy and overtly apologetic, and the men are more inclined to emphasize their foolhardy brashness, and how apt they are to stick their feet in their mouth. But I don't think the tendency itself is limited to either gender.

Jeff said...

There are blog-based manifestations of this, too, often in the form of false modesty, especially insincere pseudo-apologies for the supposed obscurity of one's interests, e.g., "So I've been catching up on this year's articles about East African postcolonial postal history (what, *you're* not up to speed on recent developments?)" Sometimes it's even more implausibly self-deprecating: "I spent the weekend reading 14th-century charters (yes, I'm a geek)..."

I mean, really, in the name of basic dignity, an experienced scholar eventually must stop publicly meta-giggling over the obscurity of his or her intellectual interests. If you're writing a blog about those interests, however narrow the niche, please just assume a sympathetic, even like-minded audience. All these quasi-liturgical mini-acclamations do is reinforce the silly idea that we should apologize (to no one in particular) for exhibiting curiosity and passion.

Anonymous said...

Great post & comments. It can be hard, for academics or anyone else, to acknowledge that while growing up is optional, growing older is not. Once you reach early mid-career (a stage for which Flavia's cheat sheet is as good an index as any) you need to accept that grad students and new asst profs won't see you as a peer, no matter what poses you strike. You can no longer bond with them at MLA over the absurdity of the scene, or swap crazy interview stories. But you can introduce them to people. You can read their work. You can give better advice than you did five years ago. If you're no longer one of the kids, you have more to offer that cohort than you did when you were part of it. And that's nice too.


Flavia said...

Jeff: I hadn't thought to put that kind of behavior in the same category, but maybe you're right--and you're certainly right that it's similarly tiresome!

T: That's exactly right--even if one doesn't yet feel totally like a grown-up, one can still assume the role of elder sibling, or cool young aunt or uncle, toward the genuinely youngest scholars in the profession. (And who *doesn't* love to play elder sibling, asks this big sister?) I maintain a totally outsized love and admiration for the junior scholars who were kind to me when I was a grad student at my first few conferences--and aspire to follow their examples.

Canuck Down South said...

This kind of behaviour has been only my mind this week, and this thread made me reflect that it can be just as startling when the person doing it is earlier in his/her career, depending on the environment. Earlier this week I was sitting in on a 400-level class taught by a first-year tenure-track professor. About 3/4 of the way through the class, the professor apologized for getting carried away talking about the material by saying "I'm a real [class topic] geek." It was a really jarring moment for me: as the sole faculty member in a room of senior undergrads and graduate students, the professor is supposed to be leader of the discussion, even the authority who's passionate about the subject--there's no need to apologize for what you're supposed to be doing, especially in such a disingenuous way. It was an odd moment of rejecting any sort of interest in a topic that was, in theory, the reason we were all in the room--and when someone more senior tries to distance him/herself from academic subject, I think it really leaves everyone else in the odd position of trying to figure out how much enthusiasm/interest it's appropriate to display.

Dr. Crazy said...

Hmmm.... I'm with you on the thrust of the post, F., but after reading the comments, I'm not so sure I'd lump bloggy stuff (depending on the nature of the blog) or classroom comments (depending on the culture of the particular class) in the same pile. Now, this might be because I've been guilty of both... so I may just be totally delusional about the how and the why of it. In bloggy instances, in my case, I'd say this: when I've been guilty of those sorts of comments, it's always when I'm struggling with new material, stuff that I don't feel expert on and that is screwing with my head. I don't write a "professional" academic blog - I write a personal one. I don't think in that context there is a thing in the world wrong with expressing insecurity, whether overtly or implicitly. 'Cause, you know, even after tenure and after a book and after whatever markers, one should be taking some intellectual risks, and that's scary. (I will say that in conversations with senior scholar friends - not professional acquaintances, but friends - they are guilty of exactly this impulse as well. I suppose I see my blog readers as more like friends than professional colleagues.)

As for in the classroom, I've always read that sort of admission - "I'm a geek for this," or, "writing papers is totally fun - I mean, totally in a nerdy way, but let's embrace the nerdy fun" as giving students permission to embrace their geekiness, their nerdiness, etc. That's how I responded as a student, and that's always been my intent when I've said stuff in that vein - not at all to apologize for what I like or what interests me.

So I suppose I'd add to this conversation (even though I'm showing up way late) that I think context matters in a *huge* way. No, I am not the insecure young graduate student or beginning assistant professor, and no, I'm not at all the new kid on the block. And lots of people take me seriously, and I think that's the professional demeanor I project at conferences, at committee meetings, etc. But not every environment is a formal professional environment, and thank goodness for that because I would hate having to monitor my self-presentation in that particular way in less formal environments.

cattyinqueens said...

Oh dear! This throws me into turmoil!! I meet two of the criteria, but just barely.

I think the people I am chit-chatty with are usually my former professors, and since I went to a huge program, it is relatively easy to know 5 or 6 senior people there, so I'm not sure they count. I've been invited to one thing, mostly because of I was on an SAA panel that few people signed up for, and so it turned into another thing...

See, I can talk my way out of any of those criteria, because clearly I don't yet know how to grow into the other thing I need to be.

But, by the end of this year, I might have tenure, and if I do, then I think I will be able to move into a new mode of thinking, even if I don't have a book or any of the other things. I'd like to think that will make a huge difference in how I feel as a professional.

I do think I embody a lot of the phenomenon you're describing, and it's definitely gendered in kind of gross ways (yes, I know senior scholars speak to me at the conference bar, but I think some of these people think they're talking to a student, that I'm 15 years younger than I am, and very possibly talking to me for reasons other than they think I'm super smart and interesting intellectually.) And i'm at an institution that is making tenure seem unattainable even though I've met its standards, another way in which I'm infantilized at a moment in my career where I should be able to own some pretty good accomplishments.

It's maddening, actually. What's interesting is that in my head, I bristle at all of it and feel irritated in an adult way, but in my general demeanor, I take it to heart and act as if I'm a perpetual child who needs consoling or constant encouragement.

So I think some of the work needs to happen in my head and behavior; some of it is academic culture and its attendent (sometimes, not always) patriarchy/misogyny. And some of it is my specific administration that's trying to reallocate my line. But it's true I don't need to be a child simply because a bunch of old guys are making me feel like one.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I'm not sure about this applying - as per Jeff's comment - to blogs. If someone in academia has a personal or general-interest blog, and only sometimes makes reference to his/her work, I'm not sure what the problem is with mentioning that fewer readers probably care about postmodern critiques of medieval tapestry than about a great recipe for layer cake, an exciting sporting event, etc.

Flavia said...

Dr. Crazy, et al.:

Yes, I think (upon reflection) that the phenomenon Jeff is talking about, and to a degree the one Canuck is talking about, is a different one, though it depends a lot on context. There's also a real difference between occasionally mocking oneself for the obscurity of one's field of interest, or for one's geeky enthusiasm, and actually being and seeming insecure.

Or maybe better stated: it's a continuum. We're all insecure about our intelligence/status in the profession, at least some of the time, and we probably all vocalize those feelings occasionally to friends. And maybe many of us could do a little less of it, or do it in different ways--but it's not inherently bad to have insecurities. But when those insecurities, and the cutesy/hapless persona that goes along with them, are what you lead with, or what you fall back on? That's a problem.

Catty: I should have specified senior scholars not from your own graduate institution.

And yes, I think you're right about the culture of academia. But I think you're even more right about this: "But it's true I don't need to be a child simply because a bunch of old guys are making me feel like one."