Sunday, August 7, 2011

Bad Female Academic: Not Interested in Passing

(See what I did there? That's the second post in a row where I've come up with a clever title with two possible meanings, both in the traditional academic sense and in the socio-economic sense. Anyone? Anyone? Alright, I'll get on with it.)

When Dr. Crazy was talking about gender and class, she brought up the concept of "passing", or being able to move up and fit into a different socio-economic class. Women, especially, have been practicing this since, well, since there were marked differences between different groups of people implying an hierarchy.* I think if this Bad Female Academic series has shown anything, it's that I am not very good at passing myself off as a "traditional" academic.

But writing this series has forced me to look back at my personal history both inside and outside academia, and I've come to the conclusion that I have never really been interested in passing, and in fact now seem to be actively seeking out situations where it would be impossible for me to pass. 

Let me explain, and bear with me if we take a short voyage into my non-academic past.

In elementary school, I was the only girl in my class who didn't at least try to figure skate or do ballet. This was an offense punishable by being mean-girled for all of elementary school. I swam. I never hid the fact that I swam, nor was I interested in giving up swimming in order to "fit in." In high school, too, I wore my hideous swimming jacket as a badge of pride, marking my difference from the rest of the group. It was also in high school when my parents got divorced and I was suddenly thrust into a different economic reality, a reality that was much different from that of my friends. Swimming, while a welcome escape for me, was also a place where I didn't quite fit in, as I was one of the youngest and only girls. 

After a particularly difficult two years at a private CEGEP, where I decided that I couldn't join the socio-economic elite I was going to school with, nor did I have any desire to beat them, so I wore sweatpants for two years, I left to go to a French university. I knew I wouldn't, couldn't pass as a French person, but I didn't care. The impossibility of passing was liberating. 

After my PhD (where I probably tried too hard to pass, failed miserably, and was miserable), after getting married, after adjuncting while pregnant, I got my tenure-track job. At an HBCU. Once again, while pregnant. There was no hope of passing, in fact it would have been insulting and ignorant to even try. But I liked that. I had realized that letting go of the pressure, the desire, the desperation, to be something I wasn't, I learned more, was more open, and a better teacher. I wasn't wrapped up in whatever I needed or thought I needed to do, so I could focus on what my students needed me to be. 

Think about that for a second. If we just stopped worrying so much about what our colleagues or administrators or "the elite" want us to be, maybe we can be better teachers and researcher, actually attuned to what they need from us, and what we need from ourselves. 

Now, I am an instructor in the South. My accent marks me as different. And that's perfectly fine by me. Maybe by being myself, I can teach my students (and my children) that it's ok to be yourself and to be different. 

*I don't use the term "passing" without realizing that it is a problematic term; I've worked at an HBCU and I study Black writers, so I am well aware of the history of "passing" for African-Americans in the US. And even the fact that I have the choice to be able to pass marks me as being a more privilege position. And my apparent rejection of that privilege is also not unproblematic. I don't see what I do as "slumming it" but instead a conscious effort to do things differently. 


  1. Hmmm.

    I've changed socio-economics across my lifetime. (Too poor to have enough food when I was little to having a house and nice cars and spending money.)

    I also just recently changed socio-economic schools. From very poor inner city CC to small town $$$ SLAC.

    What is passing when you are in those positions? I have taken advantage of my change in socio-economic status to try and inspire my CC kids. I guess I will do the same to try to open the eyes of my more wealthy students now.

    There is a difference in culture as well as money in those levels, I think. Expectations certainly differ.

  2. I was a theater geek in high school but there was very little mean-girl-ing, thank goodness. All of my trauma is firmly located in grad school and beyond.

    Funny thing is, I was so incredulous at "the rules," it took me a long time to accept that, yes, indeed, I was being judged for (e.g.) watching TV. Since I didn't even know what was going on at first, then when I did, I just thought, "screw you!" I think I never had a great shot of "passing"...and I never got to the point where I felt financially secure, so I didn't feel much class difference in that regard.

    Still, I often feel stuck in the middle...too much "deep thinking" for the comfort many people, but not classy enough to hang out with the literati. It's an odd position, but like you, I've gotten to the point where I'm not interested in making other people feel better about themselves at my own expense.

    But, to me, being yourself is still anathema to academic culture. It's good for the students, I agree, but in all honestly I'd tell someone that they could expect to be passed over for promotion, not renewed etc., if they don't play along -- this is where I get in lots of fights, no one wants to admit it but until we freaking acknowledge the problem, how are we going to fix it? But the more people do admit it, and are willing to take the chance anyway, the more likely it is that the culture will change.

  3. Good post. Good topic. I think some people can do the "passing" thing without loss of integrity and others have to compromise on that front. For example, my spouse is incredibly skilled at fitting into all sorts of social situations and is always welcomed as "one of us." But he is a very strong personality and remains squarely his intense self, no matter where he is. And me? I suck horribly at the "passing" game. Attempts to "pass" in graduate school sucked hard in an undignified sort of way. Hell, I even changed my appearance fairly radically in order to become the Ivory Towerrette. I worked to please certain people, to quote from the right books and that sort of thing. Argh, horrible to recall it now.

  4. Fascinating. Your experience is different from mine, and that is instructive and thought-provoking. For me, I never ever fit in anywhere ever in my life until my PhD. I was the weirdo oddball goth teetotaller nerd and I was pretty used to be ostracized.

    But now, as a prof, I fit in. I mean, really fit in. I wear the right clothes and say the right things and cultivate the right tastes and live in the right neighbourhood and publish in the right places*. And I'll tell you what: I really like fitting in, and that feels like selling out, for sure. God, it's nice to be comfortable in these daily and structural ways. I don't want to go back to fighting everyone all the time, I don't.

    Isn't that awful? I feel like a sellout.

    * I'm still intellectually rebellious, and am sort of known for my strong idealism and unwillingness to go along with some stuff on campus and such. So at least there's that. But it's all collegial, finally.

  5. I've been thinking (and writing) a lot lately about class and the academy, signaling, social markers, etc. I think the more signaling people do, the more anxious they must be about their status.

    I think it is good to get to the place where you realize that you could pass, but that it's really not worth your time to worry about it.

    Collegiality and congeniality are important, but conformity is way overrated.


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