31 March 2008

Autorretrato


As if to add insult upon injury, an early April Fools joke, it is snowing today in Cold City, big chunky wet flakes that whirl outside the window heavily, as if Winter is clawing at the edge of the cliff, perched hanging above the abyss, straining for its last life. To wit, there is no accumulation, just deep icy slush that gives way easily to the plows that have come through desultorily, wearily, as if the season has continued just a few days too long. In cold places, of which I have known many, is there anything truly as reassuring as the deep, throbbing scrape of the plow? The monstrous machines belching diesel and promising civilisation and salted roads, their fluorescent vest-wearing crews pushing Nature aside for the banalities of automobile travel and shopping errands.

Our Spring term, ironically, begins shortly, and a young professor’s fancy turns to the sartorial. A new term always promises a new chance to craft anew one’s peacock splendour whilst strutting about on the stage. I have gone through many an incarnation of different and occasionally antipodal presentations of self. I have done the cool jeans and sports coat look, the suit look, the Mr. Rogers sweater vest look, the casual Friday look, the über-femme queen look, even at one point the skater boy look. Is there indeed a look I haven’t tried? I guess I haven't shown up in a Mumu (yet!). While some academics may think the sartorial to be beneath their ethereal souls (and dress accordingly), visual self-presentation is important insofar as it does communicate professorial value to our critical audiences.

This musing on the professorial look is not completely random, of course. A recent piece in the Times discussed professors’ use of the Internet, in the usual mildly mocking tones the paper likes to marshal against hapless eggheads toiling in their towers whilst good money is being made elsewhere. Professors using Facebook and MySpace! How curious! Professors revealing their hobbies and interests in the same torrid, exhibitionist manner as their students! How silly!

Aside from whatever stylistic problems I may have with the apparatus of description in the pixilated pages of the New York Times, the question of professorial personae, and the tension between private lives and public performances I thought was interesting. This is a recurrent thread, of course, as professorial duties always involve the actual performance of the body, as well as, apparently, the online performative principles of social networking sites.

The Times piece notes that professors using Facebook or MySpace are often trying to communicate their humanity to students, their interests outside the classroom, the “real” person behind the façade of professorial authority. Imbued as I am in mystery and ritual, I am not sure I am one with the madding crowd here. Broaching the proscenium arch of the professorial performative is not terribly interesting to me, actually. Do I really want my students to know the really real me, to feel the edges of who Professor Raro is outside of the classroom?

Not particularly. Of course, I am not a complete scrim in the classroom. Little bits of the real me, whomever that might be, slip out, on occasion. Usually these moments are regretted, pondered, worried over. For in my conception of my role, there is little room for that real me in all its blowsy dimensions: iconoclastic, profane, wildly disorganized, inchoate, ambivalent, and occasionally foul-mouthed. Some of these qualities come through in my pedagogical method, of course, but are honed, perfected to techne, directed not towards me on the stage but to the audience listening, participating, and ideally engaging on some level beyond the mere level of the attentive.

And this is in some ways the definition of professional, the distinction between our work selves and our private selves, the line that separates the real person from the teacher, the guide, the intellectual cicerone. It is also about power, quite obviously— my need to retain professorial power in the classroom, partly as a way of controlling potentially explosive course foci, but also as a defensive gesture towards those students (and colleagues) who consider my presence in the classroom an aberration barely tolerated, much less received with approbation.

We live, of course, in a social moment that thrives on revelation, confession, and anticipated absolution. When Britney lands on the cover of The Atlantic, you know we’re in trouble. Some of the trends in the profession related to openness and transparency of personae stem from the social changes of the sixties, which sought on one level to humanise education and bring students into universities in non-hierarchical ways. Even the most taciturn professor trained after 1970 reflects some of these changes. The classical mode of professorial intimidation has gone a little démodé, although some still hold onto it, mostly as a performative abstraction. Far more common is the soft-fuzzy, Apple pie-like professorial method, with open office hours and jeans and North Face jackets and free writes and hugs all around, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar.

This, as Historiann notes, is still rather grounded in the corporeal, in the bodies we actually inhabit outside of mediated images. The sensibility of the panopticon, of being observed always and critically, is one that racialised, gendered, and sexualised professors, especially probationary faculty, tend to feel more strongly, and respond to clearly, in particular and sometimes peculiar ways, in conflict and collaboration, as one could say. The underlying theme is a hyperawareness of image, and image projection, in our professional and personal lives.

Since a series of emotional shocks this past fall threw my life into disarray, I have become increasingly focused on my image, in particular with the representational image of the still photograph. On my real-life Facebook page (yes, I have one, although it is not accessible to my students) are dozens of photographs of myself in various guises, usually with the same grimace or Mona Lisa smile, and usually taken by myself with the aid of a mirror, a stand, or with the camera held at arm’s length. I have found such self-involvement curious. It’s not like I was not already highly attenuated to myself in space, but the closing of a critical period of my personal life has brought me back to the image in a strange way. What are these photographs meant to communicate, through the guise of the solitary image of a relatively boring man approaching 40?

I don’t consider this gesture towards the self-portrait narcissistic as much as it seems to be an attempt to place myself in a moment, in space and time, to use technology to understand, incompletely and incoherently, who and what I am, and how this being, however polymorphous, communicates itself to others, in the classroom and beyond, as well as the forementioned hyperawareness of the self as image, as ocular sophistry. However, unlike other colleagues who increasingly believe in the transparency of the image, the beneficial effects of the open MySpace page, the ameliorative balm of purportedly humanising minutiae, I find no curative in such navel gazing. I remain, curiously, opaque to myself, much less anyone else. After all, "Un autorretrato no necesariamente implica un género realista."

11 comments:

adjunct whore said...

Do I really want my students to know the really real me, to feel the edges of who Professor Raro is outside of the classroom?

Not particularly. Of course, I am not a complete scrim in the classroom. Little bits of the real me, whomever that might be, slip out, on occasion. Usually these moments are regretted, pondered, worried over. For in my conception of my role, there is little room for that real me in all its blowsy dimensions: iconoclastic, profane, wildly disorganized, inchoate, ambivalent, and occasionally foul-mouthed. Some of these qualities come through in my pedagogical method, of course, but are honed, perfected to techne, directed not towards me on the stage but to the audience listening, participating, and ideally engaging on some level beyond the mere level of the attentive.

yes, this is how i feel, though as is often the case, you are quite ahead of me in understanding and communicating it. i also am moved by the idea that your own self-interest, especially el autoretrato, is curious to yourself. it makes me want to see the hand-held images in the mirror. i like the image behind you in this one, peaking out.

it seems a patient and open engagement with yourself i have yet to find. and so it makes me happy to read that it is possible.

Sisyphus said...

Another great post --- and your alter ego is watching you!

I agree with this style of teaching ---- if teaching is performative, for some people it's a striptease, but others, it's the process of dressing, of receding ever further into the misty veils, yes?

That is to say, from the student side, of course they all want to know the truth, but really they don't want to know as much as have the pleasures of searching for it.

Paris said...

Just last week I received a friend request on Facebook from someone who must have been a student of mine from my brief TA gig before I fled to Europe.

I am puzzled because I had the theory that I would be open to friendships of whatever sort with former students, but even though I had only a dozen students during that time, I cannot for the life of me figure out who this person is.

I must now conclude that I find technology, like Facebook, worthless for maintaining a relationship if the relationship was unmemorable to begin with.

That said, I'd totally friend you on Facebook!

GayProf said...

I have no interest in getting to know the real me. After all, I don't really have that much of an interest in finding out their hobbies. We have a professional relationship -- We aren't buddies.

GayProf said...

That would be "students getting to know the real me." Though the original sentence is interesting as a slip anyway...

Horace said...

I imagine my Facebook activities are neither wholly theorized, nor wholly justifiable, but I will say that one reason I do maintain a comparatively active facebook presence is not only that it reminds my students that I am a human (one who is always performing for someone), but that they are humans too, and that their performances matter.

Perhaps I function as a panoptic functionary (your professor is watching you!), but I think i also want to be a part of validating certain parts of their experience, not only in the professor/ student relationship.

Facebook, then has facilitated a number of casual contacts that are both personal and pedagogical: a student sharing with me a link to some lyrics from The Damned that reminded her of a poem we discussed in class, another asking me if I thought Sayeed on Lost was a reference to Edward Said, and another sending my the Helium and Stindberg cartoon. In this way, the material of the classroom bleeds into other segments of their lives, and I get to participate.

So while that relationship may begin in the classroom, I'm not sure it always has to end there. Self-serving? Perhaps. But multiply enriching, too.



Also, how else would I get my scrabulous fix?

Historiann said...

Hey--thanks for the link. Love this bit:

"Far more common is the soft-fuzzy, Apple pie-like professorial method, with open office hours and jeans and North Face jackets and free writes and hugs all around, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar."

And I agree entirely with GayProf: If you're a student, I'm not your buddy. I'm sure it's mostly women and faculty of color who get accused by their students of being "too aloof," the message being, "who the hell do you think you are? You think you're better than me?" Whereas it's OK for while male faculty to be "better than" their students.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if anyone has considered the other audience for our performances . . . the tenured faculty, you know, the old battleaxes who last updated their wardrobes at Lynn Cheney's garage sale in 1991? Our self-representations (and how these are taken up by students) are perhaps most under the microscopes with our insecure, jealous, tenure vote-wielding peers . . . any thoughts oso raro?

La Vicks

Anonymous said...

Professors use the relatively "harmless" and "innocent" content of their online presence as a way to subconsciously (and often consciously) flirt with their students.

When I say "flirt" I don't necessarily mean it in a purely sexual way (although it's hard to argue against the notion that all flirting is sexual in nature,) but more in an emotional and intellectual way. It's like a little primitive "mating" ritual whereby professors leave territorial markings of their own choosing (in a way of the best photos, interesting quotes, books, music links) as a way to appeal more broadly to their students, but also to like-minded souls at large.

cero said...

I'm forced to be on Facebook because it's the best e-mail system the campus has. Our official mail server is often down and the spam filters tend to let ads in and filter real messages out. I would consider creating a Facebook group for each class, although right now I am using blogs for that.

I am also forced to be on it because I am faculty advisor for 2 clubs and they use Facebook to organize themselves.

My blog is a lot more personal and intimate than my Facebook profile, though. And my chair and dean know my blog, although I don't think they have time to read it or are particularly interested. I don't tell students about it. And I've got a secret blog, too, that's even more personal, and a research blog that is less so - although a close reading of it would reveal my exact identity.

I don't know - perhaps I am simplistic not to have qualms about all of this - but it doesn't seem all that different to me than having newspaper columns, or writing letters to the editor, or chatting in the halls.

Of course, at my university you cannot *not* be a person to the students: you have them in class several times if they major and probably twice if they just minor; they are your student workers; you've had their siblings in class before them; you volunteer with them in the same civic panels; you are on boards with their parents for different things; you run into them all at the local gym and end up competing on the number of laps swum. There is no real way around it except for those who live out of town.

I'm tenured. There is another tenured faculty member on Facebook I know of, but we are not Friends. Marc Bosquet is my Facebook friend, though, and if Cary Nelson had a profile (I should look and see!) I would invite him to be my Friend.

undine said...

"When Britney lands on the cover of The Atlantic, you know we’re in trouble. " Yes, indeed.

I like that analogy of the scrim. They see what we project, but when the light shifts and the scrim becomes more transparent, they get to see somewhat more.