Saturday, September 27, 2008

Public performances

In my earlier life, I was an actress. I have been in many plays and musicals in school and community theaters, beginning in childhood and continuing through graduate school. This was good training for me as an academic, because there are many times in an academic's life where we have to do public performances.

(Now, as a good lesbian feminist, I know Judith Butler thinks that everything, including our gender, is a performance, but I don't want to get into all of that. I think that she has some basic points to make, but I want to talk about times when we consciously perform social roles. Let's just go with the acting metaphor and move on, shall we?)

Obviously, we teach classes, which is a consistent type of performance, similar to conference presentations. To me, classroom performance is the most basic. I know the audiences fairly well. In the classroom, they are the student body, who I see regularly in advising, and who gets profiled every year in that annual list of "these students have never known the world without the internet, they never knew a Reagan presidency, and they think you are old and out of touch." I play the role of the strict but friendly professor--passionate about my topic, interested in students, and in control of the room. The friendly professor becomes the thoughtful and critical researcher when I present at conferences. I tend to present at the same conferences yearly, so the audience is usually made up of friends, colleagues, doctoral students (not unlike the ones I teach and supervise), and other people similar to my overeducated demographic. I know what they are looking for, be they theoretical friend or foe, and I am prepared to engage them in what I hope is a fruitful dialogue.

Then there are performances where we chair meetings, provide supervision to staff or student workers, and meet with our funders and supervisors. These performances provide a little more challenge when they represent a new experience, but once you have done them for a little while, the nervousness wears off and routine sets in. You learn what affects work best with each group, how best to control the whiners, the oppositional, and the defensive, and you find out how to get through your agenda. I have found that I play the competent manager in these situations--as prepared as possible to provide needed information and give thoughtful feedback, while maintaining a strong but soft hand to move things along.

All job candidates know that we also play a role when interviewing for jobs. We have to juggle the various roles listed above, depending on the level of the job and the time in the interview (conference or phone interviews, small group meetings with students, meeting with the Dean or Provost, doing the job talk or class presentation, etc.). These activities are especially stressful, because one has to juggle all of these performances for several days, with many differing audiences.

Finally, though, there are the big performances. These are the performances that make me really nervous...the ones where you actually have to be yourself. Speaking as an invited guest at a conference. Winning an award and offering "a few words." A first speech to the folks at your new institution where you are the incoming leader. These venues require an honesty and integrity of the speaker that, while they should underlie the other performances, they are not the main focus of those performances. I have found that the best speakers I have seen in these settings are people who really share something about themselves, something that makes me feel connected to them while making me consider new possibilities for myself, my research, teaching, educational community, or profession.

Invited speakers who don't reveal something about themselves leave the listeners bored. An award recipient should never play humble about the award; you are either humble, or you aren't. Same goes for new leaders: if you are excited about the position and the location, say so, but don't try to fake it. People who try to play humble or excited are easily recognized...and it looks bad. And people expect some self-revelation, because it reveals the capacity for self-reflection.

I don't mind some self-revelation. Like most academics, for good or ill, I spend a lot of time thinking about myself--my strengths and shortcomings, the limitations of my own thinking, the places I can continue to grow and learn. I even include these reflections in my academic writings, sometimes, although I have found that to be challenging as well. Self-revelation is difficult I exactly because it is personal and private. You can't take refuge in a role or a script, you have to speak from the soul. But you have to have perspective on how much to share, remember your audience and your purpose for speaking, and balance your role (award recipient, speaker, leader) with your self.

Now that, my friends, is a challenge.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


If there is one academic pastime I would like to give up, it would be fretting.

I am referring to worrying and being vexed, not corrosive fretting of metals and other materials, though it does sound somewhat similar in its ability to "wear and corrode." In this case, I am referring to the wearing of one's nerves and the corrosion of one's sense of well-being.

I have spent far too much of my time worrying about all of the work I *wasn't* getting done. Vacations, eating out, watching TV, relaxing with friends, reading the newspaper, attending events on campus--each of these has been invaded by the fretful thoughts that I just wasn't doing enough.

This feeling of fretfulness is bad all the time, but it is even worse when I am being especially unproductive. I start listing in my head (and sometimes on paper) all of the tasks I should be doing, but I never take the next step and map out what I will work on and in what order. Instead, I eye the list and fret. It is a terrible feeling, and it doesn't help at all. In fact, it makes matters worse. I begin to feel both guilty and incapable of acting on the list.

So, instead of fretting my night away, I have decided to ignore the undone tasks tonight. I will eye the list tomorrow morning, prioritize the tasks, and start setting aside times to complete them--especially the writing that I have been avoiding. I will make a plan to be productive.

Once I start working on the tasks, I know the fretting temporarily will subside. For now.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

I second that emotion

Well, as I noted in an earlier post, I have had a great start to the semester. I found out that I won a university teaching award, and I have also been offered some great opportunities for consulting and even service work. Further, I have been complimented repeatedly and publicly in the past few weeks by colleagues, administrators, and even people outside the university for my efforts. I feel like the closest to an academic administrative "It Girl" as there might be, other than not being a big research star. But the big teaching award and the recognition related to it, and the other opportunities, has been somewhat disconcerting. (It Girl comic image from

Now, normally, I am not one to complain about getting attention. Truth be told, I enjoy the spotlight. I love awards and recognition, and I like being complimented on my work. I even like it when my picture is taken (and published), as long as it is somewhat flattering! And I know that others who are not getting the recognition they richly deserve would tell me not to complain to them. So, to clarify, I am not complaining--instead, I am simply reflecting and noting my feelings, which are honestly fairly surprising to me.

It is awkward to get repeated kudos from people all over the place, some of whom I barely know. It reminded me of a time when I hurt myself. I had to tell the story of how I hurt myself, what the diagnosis and prognosis was, and how I felt now to each and every person I saw. This award felt the same way--when people congratulated me at first, I responded spontaneously. After the first few people, my answers started to get a little more rote. As the days went by, I felt like a candidate on the stump, "Yes, the award is a great honor. What a wonderful way to start the semester! I am very excited about it." Blah, blah, blah--blathering on. I mean it, I do, but it is hard to continue to feel the same thing for weeks on end, which is how long it takes for word of the award to spread.

I spent one meeting getting compliments from so many sides that I found myself getting angry at the last person complimenting me. I mean, one compliment is excellent, and two is even better... but at some point, you become the kid in the classroom that everyone hates. I wanted to disappear from embarassment. And the other problem is that I know that someone else is not getting recognized who should be recognized, so I started to feel guilty. I just felt like saying, "Okay, thanks, that's enough." And I also suspected that there were others present who were thinking the same thing, which leads me back to embarassment.

It is funny, because I generally thrive on positive feedback. I keep the nice notes from former students, colleagues, and supervisors, complimenting or thanking me. I take out those notes on bad days, so I can look at them and remember that I am not really the worst teacher in the world. (I have a friend who vies with me for that moniker--I will call her and tell her my worst teacher behaviors/experiences, and she will call me and try to top it.) But perhaps it is like our Depression-Era family members say, "Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing." Or maybe it isn't a bad thing, but just an awkward thing.

That said, I will try to remember these compliments when I am having a bad day. Or when I am writing a letter to apply for a new job. And I will try to live into what these compliments seem to be saying about me.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Student voting rights!

I have been very disturbed by the stories from Inside Higher Ed, picked up in the New York Times, about actions by a Virginia county registrar that discourage local Virginia Tech students from registering to vote. The Montgomery County Registrar's Office put out an official memo that warned students about registering to vote using their campus address. It warned, erroneously, of students losing scholarships, being thrown off their parents' insurance, and no longer being able to be claimed on their parents' tax return.

The NYTimes article notes that the Supreme Court ruled years ago, in 1979, that students can register to vote using their campus addresses. In fact, the Roanoke Times notes that a student at Virginia Tech fought for the right to register and vote more than 20 years ago. Students across the country have voting rights, like anyone else who meets the voting criteria. Virginia needs to clarify the voting procedures for students, so that there is no question that they can vote using their campus address.

Most undergraduate students are traditional age, and their first few years at college represent their first time being able to vote. Their first presidential election will likely happen during their undergraduate years. How can we be discouraging them from voting?

And why wouldn't they vote in their college district? Undergraduate students live for a majority of their year in the academic setting, and they become familiar with the issues that affect their lives in that context and the elected officials who represent them there. These students can learn to become better citizens if they get the chance to participate in the elections that affect them where they live, where they can meet the candidates and attend the local meetings.

Honorable colleges and universities, not to mention county registrars, encourage students to register and vote. My own university leader wrote a personal note to students to that effect, and I could not have been prouder of my school and its leadership.

I am disgusted by the actions of the Montgomery County registrar, and inactions of the larger Commonwealth of Virginia's legislators, who seem to be working to suppress student turnout. What makes this even more problematic is that Montgomery County’s General Registrar of Elections, E. Randall Wertz, "was elected president of the Voter Registrar’s Association of Virginia (VRAV) for a two-year term. The VRAV, which represents the registrars in 134 cities and counties throughout Virginia, provides educational opportunities and social interaction for its members. It strives to improve the voter registration election processes and promote efficient administration within the offices of General Registrars." (

Perhaps Mr. Wertz will use this public discussion as an opportunity to challenge Virginia to do better by its college students and facilitate, rather than impede, their civic participation.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

You know school is back in session when...

... you go out to eat downtown after a Friday evening orientation event and see one student vomiting and another laying down drunk with her friends on the sidewalk. attend so many orientation events that you keep your nametag on the whole day. get an email from a new adjunct instructor asking what to do when students ask him questions about the syllabus, and he doesn't know what to say, because he didn't really read it that closely before passing it out. get an email from the bookstore telling you that your required textbook is unavailable for months. Then, when you tell this to your students, they tell you that the book is actually AT the bookstore, and they have already bought it. get no fewer than 15 emails from students asking to get in a different section of a course. realize that you are the most uneducated and culturally limited instructor ever, because you still cannot figure out how to pronounce some of the international students' names. And you are embarrassed to ask *again*. realize you are already behind in writing, reading, and grading, and classes just started. start looking at job ads. Again.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Just plain odd and nerdy

I am Lesboprof, and I am a nerd.

How do I know?

Examples to follow:

A. Upon reviewing applicant CVs, I saw an article title that looked interesting. I went to find it online and read it. Just because.

B. I just went from watching Semper Fi, the documentary of a gay marine in Iraq, to Dirty Dancing. Makes sense, no? Nobody puts Baby in a corner.

C. One of my young extended family members blocked me on Facebook, so I made up another name and went back on to see her new pic. I'm not a stalker, I just hate being blocked.

And this was just today. I am sure examples will multiply over the week.

What are your current examples of your nerd-dom?