31 March 2008
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."