My Peripatetic Life

My Peripatetic Life

Posted on: Fri, 04/20/2018 - 08:50 By: Matt

As I was doing the long drive back to Ontario from the Sewanee Medieval Colloquium last weekend, it struck me that I actually wanted to do something with this website. It’s long served as a placeholder and set of links, but it could be doing more to centralize my thinking as well as reveal the process behind my professional life and the ways that process has impacted my personal one. My biggest desire, I realized, was to achieve greater transparency. It’s something I think about a lot when I’m talking about the digital world and the ways that the platforms and tools we work with tend to be obscured in how we present the work made using those tools. And while I’ve long had as one of the axioms on the site the line “transparency needs to be the order of the day in all of your dealings with code, with theory, and with people,” this site was not reflecting the reality of my lived situation as a professional academic.

There’s a sort of received wisdom to the development of a professional academic website, and I hate it. Ideally, you’re expected to (and should) present examples of your work and what you've been doing, to make it clear how productive you’re being. You are also expected, however, to do so in a way that is basically anodyne and unthreatening. The reason for this is simple. As a genre, a professional website is usually intended for people looking to hire you for a position, and in order to get that position you don’t want to come across as someone who is going to make waves or cause legal issues for the place that hires you.

In a world where an errant social media remark or an irate student can set a horde of people commenting, emailing, and phoning your institution with the goal to discredit you or get you fired (or worse, as we’ve seen with the social media disagreement between Dorothy Kim and Rachel Fulton Brown, actively court the Alt-Right directly to increase the numbers in service to their cause) there is literally no way to play it safe, though. If the goal of education is to actually engage in the process of wrestling with difficult ideas the people who are expressing those ideas—student, faculty, or staff—must be able to do so with the idea that the institution is not going to kick the legs out from under them. This isn’t the case right now, however, because the university as an institutional construct is ultimately conservative, and as the leadership is taken from a professional administrative class it only becomes moreso.

Because of these forces the push to connect everyone online has resulted in a real erosion of both the public commons as a place to hold discussions and the ability to fashion a different representation for work and for home. The disclaimers I see sometimes on individual and institutional social media accounts, which invariably state that the opinions expressed are not those of their employer, and the fact that some public intellectuals working in private industry feel the need to stress that the independence of their public intellectualism is mandated by their contract are part of that. At one time, we could have basically assumed that someone who was not speaking in an official capacity was not speaking for their employer unless they were a high-level executive or a paid spokesperson. Now, there’s never a time that we’re not, in some way, working. And because of that the assumption is that we’re always, in some way, speaking in an official capacity. It’s distorting our ability to speak meaningfully.

There’s something else I should acknowledge, as well, although it should be taken as a given: in writing for the site I’m only really writing my own opinions from where I sit. The problems I see my colleagues and friends who are people of color talk about are not ones I have to deal with, but they play into this as well. The ways that identity is written on the skin, how much slack you’re given in a particular situation based on in-group/out-group affinities, whether or not an errant comment is assumed to be a signifier of being “troublesome” or “uncollegial”: these are all problems that I think have been exacerbated by the constant feeling of having to walk on eggshells lest a mob of trolls set upon you. And, of course, because that outward, obvious signifier of public and professional identity is always there for them in a way it isn’t for me they’ve always been dealing with the situation of how to present their multiple selves, in a way.

As for how I present myself: if you go and look on social media, the image that I’ve chosen to represent me shows me in a three-piece suit, with a hat, standing next to a nineteenth-century wall clock. It’s a fair representation; we own that clock and I do own the three-piece suit and hat, obviously. The clothes, however, also signify a degree of stability, professionalism, and seriousness. There’s a reason why bankers traditionally work in a three-piece suit, and it’s not for the reason I do (full disclosure: I do it because I’m tall, ties don’t always look right on me, and I like the idea of wearing a pocket watch as a nod towards my geeky interest in Steampunk and Victorian architecture). And while I’m a fairly serious person by nature and strive towards professionalism, I don’t think my life is particularly stable. I’ve been a postdoc since graduating from Texas A&M, part of a trend that began in the sciences and has slowly crept across the disciplines as part of the increasing contingent nature of academic work (and work in general, to be honest). What this has meant is that I typically get a two-year term-limited position and move across the country to take it, leaving my spouse back in Texas to finish up her doctorate while doing so as well.  It’s expensive, lonely, and isolating, because you always know in the back of your head you will be moving on to someplace else unless you get a permanent gig and as soon as you start to settle and mesh with your colleagues you’re starting to plan for the next move.

Combined with this is the fact that the postdoctoral positions I have taken do not generally offer much in the way of research and travel assistance (this varies—there’s generally at least some money, so I may be unfair in my assessment here) for things that are not directly related to the position.  For this reason, professional development often comes out of pocket, which is fair. However, when married to the relatively low salary (there’s a reason why places go with contingency, after all) it results in my shelling out significant amounts of money to try and stay current in my field—something that tends to fall by the wayside (or at most, get nodded to ritually) in larger discussions of the theoretical directions of where the humanities should be going as debated by people in stable, settled or semi-settled tenured or tenure-track positions. There's also still an assumption, expressed most recently by Paula M. Krebs, that the people applying for tenure-track positions are all graduate students. This is not in the least bit true, and is really a shame because I agree with the piece otherwise. However, maintaining the fiction is a kind of willful ignorance of the idea of contingency—which is, again, nodded to ritually and tutted over abstractly—and how it affects the lives of real physical individuals that we may interact with on social media, in the halls of our departments, or on mailing lists.

Returning to the original point of this post—that there is more I could be doing with this site—one of the things I want to do is counteract that self-fashioning of the academic as either wildly successful or a total failure. To acknowledge in revising and maintaining it the peripatetic nature of my professional life and to foreground in some ways how it hinders my ability to do the kinds of research I feel I should be doing at this point in my career. To show the opportunities I've had to set aside and the ones I've been able to take because of how it affects my ability to plan. To sort of mark it for the world. In short, to return to the axiom I wrote. Not to speak ill of people or institutions, but to be honest about the constructs I see in the world, where I think people have blinders on (or, perhaps, where I myself have blinders on) and what we might do to bring back honest conversation, rather than adversarial armed camps.

I expect there will be more written on this, but something I’m going to do as a daily reminder is take a picture of the doorway or entryway of the place where I slept the night before. While this will result in a number of similar images, I figure that taken as a whole it will show the issue of precarity and contingency, at least in my situation, and serve as a reminder to maintain transparency in how I interact with the world.

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