These are the rules of being an academic professional:
- Have a business card
- Have a CV
- Have an email address that sounds more like your name than your finsta username
- Dress well
- Speak well
- Eat well
- Don’t sit on the floor
- Don’t sit in the back
- Don’t sit in a daydream
These are just a few of the rules and regulations that I shall publish in my next book: How to be a Professor without a Ph.D. But actually, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how to present myself as a professional worthy of, well, worthy of a profession.
See, it’s been a heck of a semester.
On Halloween, I was in costume alright. Decked out in a blazer and (matching!) dress socks, I delivered spiel after schtick after elevator pitch of my thesis research at a conference. While friends were partying it up in Charlottesville’s club scene, I was at the Black Doctoral Network’s Undergraduate Research Competition in Atlanta, Georgia.
Despite expending most of my mental concentration on not passing gas in crowded areas, I had a wonderful time talking with scholars my own age and older who were so passionate about the work they were pursuing. I learned about the politics of higher education at HBCUs, the science behind cancer cells in mice, and a whole lot more.
And I had a similar experience a few weeks later at the University of Virginia’s Diversifying Scholarship research conference, where I again presented some thesis research on the Harlem Cultural Council Dancemobile during the Black Arts Movement. The talk was well received, and I was proud of my work, but again, I spent so much time thinking about my conduct that I was plagued with internal questions.
I think the underlying questions have been a product of my own insecurity as a novice in the field of academic research, namely, “Who the hell is this guy?” Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve been doubting whether or not I’m qualified to talk about any of the things I’ve found in my research.
And instead of determining whether or not I am qualified, my response has been to fake it ‘till I make it. So, in the pursuit of pretending like I can do this, here’s a short list of
tactics I’ve developed…
- Use longer words at the expense of communicating effectively
- Wear glasses more often at the expense of my eyesight
- Censor this blog at the expense of my thoughts, in case potential peers or graduate faculty are reading
- Describe “being an RA” as “Coordinate events and programs with fellow RAs to facilitate education on multicultural and psychosocial topics”
- Begin emails with “I hope you are well” and sign them off with “best wishes, sincerely, cheers to your cat”
- Be humble…
- But believe your work matters…
- But not so much that you’re an ass about it
- DON’T BE AN ASS!
- In conversation, cite books that you’ve purchased but never read
- Don’t read the whole book if you do
- Establish a dialectic juxtaposition of two prerogatives that reveals the illuminating potential of theoretical possibilities
- Say “problematic”
- Make all of your lists out of ten
Perform because there is a script; there is a choreography to how to act if I want to pursue the life of an academic. The fact that there is a “life of an academic” is proof alone of that point.
The performance of the professional might initially establish the possibility of a “real” me and a “performed” me that is symbolic, temporary, and iterative. But also re: fake.
At least that’s one way to look at it.
Another way is to think about performance as a process of exchange that establishes a spectacle to be created and observed.
It seems that performance is one of those terms that isn’t strictly defined because the work it is asked to do transcends disciplinary boundaries. A machine performs within parameters, but a dance performance connotes a definition of performance that is more artistic. Pharmaceuticals are sold to enhance one’s “performance” in sports or *cough* bed.
It is at this riotous moment that professionalization shows its desperate business, nothing less than to convert the social individual.–Fred Moten, The Undercommons
In my thesis, I’ve been arguing that performance transcends the stage, field, or bed, and that performative acts in mobilization, namely in politics, render some kind of significance. Check back in March when I figure out what that significance is…
Until then, I’m stuck dwelling on performance in the professional sphere, wondering, because I don’t know what “professional” is and I barely have a definition for what “performance” is, either.
In this process of trying to figure out what all of this means, I talked with my friend, Ravynn, who is crushing the grad-school game at William and Mary. Check out her blog here.
Ravynn is amazing. Not only is she super smart, but she also entertains all my nonsensical questions, so we talked about what it felt like to be making one’s way in academia. She gave me a business card.
I mean, girl, I got your info. Email, facebook, wordpress, text, you name it. We’ve been friends for a minute now. Really?
But it was pretty sleek. I won’t lie.
We talked about my concern: that if I perform the expectation of a “professional academic” then I will find myself waist deep in the stereotypical performance of an academic that is aloof, isolated, sarcastic, and rigid. And if I don’t, then will I be able to do all the great aspects of the job that I love? Such as reading, teaching, writing, discussing to name a few.
I think our conversation revealed a double-jeopardy to me that was concerning. My access to resources to pursue the things I enjoy can be determined by my performance of the role. Performance again, must be considered in the context of what the action is attempting to achieve, simply because it predicates the action itself.
When I was at the Schomburg Summer Humanities Institute this summer, Sohail Dauletzai, professor at UC Irvine, encouraged the group to eschew conventional departments of the academy because what they are is precisely what they aim to do: discipline. Yes, that implies the sharpening of skills and techniques, but discipline is also to correct and reform in the desired mold. The academy takes that which is different and makes it the same through a ritual of performance that proscribes one’s thoughts and movements. In this way, the academy is really acting to generate stale thought rather than expand the boundaries of what is possible.
These doubts about performance in the academy were on my mind when I visited the men in San Francisco Jail a few weeks ago.
(I will try my best to resist the writer’s urge to embellish my experience here because I don’t think it would be as ethical as simply stating the already stark facts of the jail.)
I joined Professor Amie Dowling’s class at University of San Francisco as a part of the Performing Arts and Community Exchange class. The class participates in a San Francisco jail initiative called Resolve to Stop the Violence Program (RSVP). As a function of opting into the program, the men in the jail create performance work with the University of San Francisco students in the PACE class. Everyone was gracious enough to allow me to join temporarily.
Everyone in the program committed to creating performance work passionately, but also ethically as well, with the understanding that there existed an imbalance of privileges between “outside students,” USF undergraduates and “inside students,” men in the jail who participated in the program.
Vocabulary, then, was an important element of the performance that contextualized the artistic exhibitions we were creating. And the performance wasn’t for any “fake” reason; it was to create an environment that provided an overall atmosphere of support and respect for everyone involved. And when the inside students walked into the performance area, they immediately welcomed me.
“What do you want that audience to see in our performance?”
If I could post a picture of what the process was like, I would, but I can’t because we weren’t allowed to take our phones into the jail.
But that was when I really began to feel the tensions of performance. What could I say? What could I wear? Am I allowed to move here or there? Am I being too loud? Will I get in trouble for this? More importantly, will I get someone else in trouble for this?
It was in the reconciling of these privileges that I saw the lines of “performance” diverge and converge. There were moments when I felt the pressure of the constant gaze from security cameras that restricted my movement, but I also recognized that the restrictions on my movement were different than the restrictions on the inside students’ movements.
Pointing to one of the dozens of security cameras in the room, Amie asked, “What do you want that audience to see in our performance?”
The consequences were different, the histories were different, and the ability of the camera to recognize certain movements was different. Contact between men was regulated differently than contact between women, interactions between inside students and outside students was regulated differently than either of the groups separately.
In the event of a lockdown, we had our strict actions and the inside students had theirs.
So, when we were creating the performance that will be showcased in early December, there were certainly moments when I got the sense that everyone was a contributor of equal status. Perhaps this is what Randy Martin points to as the utopian political possibilities in dance, but I can’t agree with that utopian feeling because in the jail space, the performances that marked our separate statuses in the eyes of the law undergirded our creative performances. Of course we were all of inherent equal value status as people, but in the eyes of the legal system, this was not the case.
While we could create together, we all had different reactions and experiences to the work. And at the end of the day, we left the jail, and the men didn’t.
Performance did the work of both eliding roles as well as creating them. Performance was the thing that created differences and it also broke them down, so it complicated my understanding of what it even meant to perform.
So I don’t even know what it means “to perform.” I’m about to submit eight applications to graduate programs where I list one of my concentrations as “performance studies,” and I probably couldn’t define it in a paper.
Yeah. I don’t think I’ve figured this whole professional academia performance out yet.
But if I had it all figured out, I wouldn’t need to go to grad school.