Saturday, April 22, 2006

On Professionalism

Last week, the reknowned feminist blogger and my good friend Bitch PhD came to speak at a conference where I work.

Besides the fact that it was sweet to see her again, the whole event got me re-engaged with some thinking about online interactions and academics who maintain an online presence under different personae then their professional ones.

Our campus, a good-hearted liberal arts institution in a small, leafy town, is culturally soft-spoken and slightly technophobic. The Media Relations Office here struggled mightily with their task of publicizing the name of the keynote speaker. "You want us to publicize her as 'Bitch?' Gracious! We're not sure we're allowed to publicize derogatory terms."

I'm not sure why the fuss. The fact that the students put on The Vagina Monologues every year means that everybody now goes around using the once-taboo word "vagina" at every possible conversational opportunity.

Her excellent talk can be found here. It went over well, but what was even more interesting is the discussion that ensued afterwards. She had asked me if somebody was going to call her on some points of gender theory. I figured probably not, as feminist discourse on our campus tends to have more to do with what fun it is to get to say "vagina" in public. What we didn't expect is some of the utterly non-theoretical questions faculty asked.

One sociology prof asked if net communities were intrinsically alienating. Another questioned whether self-representations could ever be taken at face-value in an anonymous environment, and if interaction could truly be honest if it was anonymous.

These questions led to some highly interesting discussion about textual communication. Although we're a low-tech campus philosophically, I am a bit surprised at the level of unfamiliarity evinced about internet communities, and the fact that they've been around for some twenty years now. And in most of those communities, people pretty much represent themselves as themselves. Only textier.

The history of textual communication goes back centuries, really. Epistolatory friendships, for instance, (the basic form of some of the first novels), or hell, the party lines many small American towns had well into the 1970s.

Then too, it's surprising that any professor, trained as rigorously as we are to maintain professional masks at all times, and to conscientiously excise all sign of the messily personal from the tidy demeanor we maintain, would wonder why we would wish to express ourselves anonymously to anonymous peers. As much as I love and admire my colleagues, I just can't get shitfaced in front of them or tell them all about my lurid past or inappropriate fantasies, the way I can tell old friends like Bitch, for instance.

Bitch's talk had a lot of other interesting ripple effects. It turned out that a faculty couple in the audience was experiencing exactly the kind of career dilemma she discussed in her talk.

The effect on me was a bit different. I've spent this entire week screening aspiring secondary-ed teachers into the class that trains them for their student teaching. The interview are tough, and we've been known to fail some kids--even smart kids with good grades--because they were unable or unwilling to maintain the necessary professionalism.

This can really suck for the kids. One girl who failed the screening shattered when we told her. She's first-generation into college, and her parents don't approve of education for girls in the first place. They told her if she didn't pass the interview, they'd yank her out of school. Game over.

The suck factor for us is that, as liberal arts professors, we're seriously dedicated to making kids better people and working against the fucked up world that slots them into increasingly narrow career tracks, that values nothing but marketability.
We want the kids to do well and to thrive, and it tears us up that our decisions can have a seriously adverse effect on their lives.

But we are professionally obligated to do so. And to demonstrate, always, no matter how stressed and crazy we are ourselves, kindness, compassion and availability to the students, our colleagues, and everyone around us.

It's an expensive ethic. After a week of 12-16 hour days of doing nothing but being completely available to over a hundred people, I went home and picked a fight with my SO.

And posted some lurid stuff on my anonymous blog. VAGINA!!! PENIS!!!!! EGGBEATER!!

I feel better.

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