Wednesday, August 29, 2007

On Academic Masculinity

Because of the time I spent in the gym this summer, I’ve been thinking about masculinity, male performances, and male bodies lately. But as the semester has gotten rolling, I’ve been experiencing a strange culture clash between this new domain, and my more comfortable space in the English Department, and been thinking in particularly about performances of masculinity within academic contexts, and how differently they manifest (although I think they may be structurally very similar).

This jarring disconnect came to me as a result of a common but rarely comfortable moment that happened in the gym last week: I ran into a student at the gym. We didn’t even acknowledge each other, but it reminded me pretty viscerally about the ways we do and don’t want our students to acknowledge our bodies, the ways that students similarly want to avoid acknowledging the teacher’s body, and the ways that body-focused spaces like the gym really violate that contract.

It is perhaps an oversimplification (an imprecision, but not, perhaps and inaccuracy) to say that academia reifies a mind/body binary by privileging the academic mind and ignoring almost completely the academic body. Indeed, even when the body is a subject of academic discourse, and even when the writer’s body makes its way into academic writing, I have encountered few or even no situations when the present body of the academic, as a material body, not as a translated node of discourse, is part of the equation.

Of course there are many ways we can talk about the academic body, even when we narrow it down to the male academic body, though it seems to me that the construction of that body revolves around to audiences for the performance of masculinity: the student and the colleague.

I’ve got plenty to say about students, teachers and bodies, but even though that was the interaction that prompted this line of though, I think I’ll save that for another post. What I’ve been thinking about today instead is the circulation of masculinity among academics, which is nothing if not curious.

A former colleague of mine, Eric Drown of George Washington University, once gave a talk on the way that physical labor and intellectual labor got depicted in pulp science fiction novels of the early 20th century, and he noted how frequently intellectuals (humans or other species) were depicted as disproportionately large-headed, thin bodied wimps (correct me if I’m misremembering this, Eric). Indeed the notion of the egghead as somehow un-masculine, and disconnected from his male body (both as a sexual agent and as a source of physical strength and potentially violence), is one that dominates stereotypes of the nerd that continue today.

And I am happy to say that in my admittedly limited experience, academic life is not punctuated by sexual competition (the occasional creepy conference-goer aside) or the specter of collegial violence.

And yet, some shockingly retrograde metaphors of masculinity rear their ugly heads from time to time, and reveal the degree to which power is still deployed in primarily male terms. At a former institution (I won’t even mention whether I was a teacher or student) I heard tell of a meeting where two male colleagues fought over a policy issue, a minor one, but one that in part indicated something about the department pecking order. Indeed, the very persistence of departmental pecking order seems somehow vestigial to animalistic notions of desirable mates. And the report I heard described their debate as follows: “They whipped them out to see whose was bigger.” Uggh.

I’ve heard this colorful metaphor deployed often since, most often in academic settings, and always as a way of noting a power struggle. The equation here of power (which in academic terms is usually connected to intellectual production—not intellectual capacity) gets metaphorically embodied in interesting ways, but ways which are only ever metaphorical, which have little to do with actual bodies.

Similarly, I recall a conference experience in which my comment was rigorously refuted by an established scholar. In the immediate aftermath, I described the incident having been “eviscerated” and that he “ripped me a new one,” graphic terms of physical violence. I also remember thinking, maybe even commenting that the scholar had “small man’s syndrome.” My invocation of the Napoleonic complex probably said as much (more?) about my own masculine anxiety in the exchange than his.

In open talk, though, the actual male bodies of academics are persistently de-emphasized—male academics seem to have pioneered the art of the casually ugly wardrobe (something I’ve long deplored) that masks the body; there is little acknowledgement of the physical toll that intellectual labor takes on any body, and male academics seem far more likely to underplay the one arena in which their body is on display—teaching.

I think this connects the idea of male intellectual labor as disembodied to the more common gendering of teaching—certainly an act of intellectual labor—and relegation of teaching to second order importance, because it is decidedly embodied. While female academics (for good and ill) have templates for bodied performances even in intellectual spheres, women seem more likely (I know, a terrible generalization) to be invested in their classroom work as intellectually rewarding, while male academics seem more likely to complain about that labor.

Yes, there are other elements involved, and the whole argument rests on a generalization that can nonetheless be connected to stereotypes that still work—the traditional image of the male academic is one whose teaching is far subordinate to their writing, whose physicality is often hidden behind a podium, whose musculature is often either sorely deficient or hidden by fat or draped in thick tweeds. We might also consider (I’m not sure how exactly) the different ways that male professors are described in contrast to female professors when that nagging chili pepper comes into play…

Anyway, power, then, is disconnected from the potential for physical violence, but metaphors of ripping into someone at a conference remain. Collegial interaction is similarly disconnected from sexual activity (despite the naughty rumors), yet “whipping it out” seems to be a oft deployed code for power struggle. This leaves female academics still competing for power in masculine metaphors, even though the actual labor is in no way connected to the gendered body.

Is intellectual labor, then, a stand-in for other embodied signifiers? Odd, when the body seems so consciously diminished in male academics’ stereotypical (and all-too-common) self-presentation. And yet that the discourse remains coded in masculine terms suggests the ways that sexism remains rampant in a field where women’s bodies and male bodies are ostensibly equally equipped (or equally irrelevant) to the labor at hand.

To bring this around to my own experience this semester, I’ve found it curiously difficult to talk about “working out” with other academics—not impossible, but there’s an unspoken awkwardness even shame to working out, particularly weight-lifting, that feels un-academic, as if working on physical strength is irrelevant to the actual power that circulates in the profession (even if my physical activity leaves me less stressed, more alert, and gives me some uncluttered thinking time). There’s a sense that physical strength is inadmissible, and maybe even (if I extrapolate a bit more) threatening to academic performances which seem designed to admit the physical male body only metaphorically, even as it clings to masculinist metaphors of sexual prowess and physical violence.

I’ve gone on too long here, but if anything, this rumination has me thinking about ways to minimize the gendered metaphors I use surrounding academic life.


Sisyphus said...

Great post ---- so many things to think about here (including some embarrassing meet-the-prof-in-the-locker-room stories I have).

I hadn't really reflected on the physicality and violence of our descriptions, or how much they are specific to academic locations or not, but yeah, they are there. And interestingly, I hear more use of (perhaps ironically or subversively) or allusion to these phrases among the women academics I know. Hmm, I wonder what that means.

I think also aging has to come in here somehow as well, thinking of how people were dressed at the last conference I went to ... and in California we tend to have a skewed, different relationship with athletics and bodies and masculinity and academics, which I'll blame on our proximity to the very strange body-modification practices of Hollywood and the ability to wear shorts and flip flops all year round.

Oh yeah, and the description of the spindly, egghead intellectuals, reminded me of the cartoon I posted a few weeks back.

Horace said...

Sisyphus, The point you raise about these male practices--clothing, language, etc.--being specific (or not) to academic settings might be beside the point. They appear in non-academic settings to be sure, but those settings aren't insisting (protesting-too-much, even) on the disembodiedness of their work.

The American Scholar last issue had an article called something like "Eros on Campus," that took the cultural panic about (Male) professors having affairs with students and basically said, "But it's not physical attraction! What they real want is [his words] Brain Sex!" As if mental attraction and bodily contact were in fact completely different things, mistaken for one another in this larger cultural anxiety.

Sisyphus said...

Ok, I thought about it and came back. What I see as a pattern here at my campus is that most of the grad students are local, or at least Californians, and the majority of our male grad students (even in the Eng dept.) are real jocks --- there's weightlifting and running clubs and our dept has both a basketball and volleyball club team; it's really weird to be the bookish nerd who hated sports and expecting to be surrounded by like-minded people in grad school and ending up being around people who had varsity letters in high school and do triathalons for fun.

Now, based on this, I was trying to connect the language and habits _outside_ academia with the people just entering academia --- the grad students. 'Cause I think here the the general SoCal culture permeates the grad student population and has influenced the faculty. A percolating up.

So is this indicative of a changing attitude toward the disembodiedness of academia, or is my school an isolated pocket of shallowness? (healthiness, but maybe shallowness too.)

Now, this hasn't extended to the idea that academic bodies need decent food or might get sick or might produce children (at least in terms of grad student support) at my school ...

Hmm... I'll go back and think more about if this attention to the body and health is compartmentalized and doesn't come into profs' and grads' classes and scholarship.

Oso Raro said...

They whipped them out to see whose was bigger.”

Sigh. How come I never get the good jobs!

Anonymous said...

"In open talk, though, the actual male bodies of academics are persistently de-emphasized—male academics seem to have pioneered the art of the casually ugly wardrobe (something I’ve long deplored) that masks the body; there is little acknowledgement of the physical toll that intellectual labor takes on any body,"

Your post is interesting for posing questions about body relations in academia without coming to conclusions on them. Yet, in the post, and in what I just quoted in particular, you seem to conclude implicitly that it is somehow negative for academics to wear dowdy clothing and to ignore their bodies. Why is that? I do not understand why you deplore the "casually ugly wardrobe." I actually think that it is a liberating aspect of the profession. In most fields, there is a rather strict dress code and in the business world you have to dress to sell, especially if you are going out and meeting people, as a realtor or something. But since academia is about the mind, the body can be underrated, it is *permitted* to be sloppy, weak, and poorly dressed. I am not sure why you are so intent to judge academics who are less interested in clothing than you are. In doing that, you seem to imply that there is an ideal way for academics to be dressing and thinking about their bodies, which in turn implies that your way of weight-loss and exercising is the right way, or at least a better way compared to the sloppy academics you "deplore." I don't understand why the body has to figure into a field that is devoted to the mind. Why are you so discontent? Why would you even want to discuss "working out" with academics? I am sure that a number of academics believes that working out is a symptom of and a ritual for our image-obsessed age, a construction to encourage bodily insecurity and body hierarchies, and so since they view the gym not as a place to relax but as a stifling cultural apparatus, they would feel uncomfortable discussing it with your or anybody else.

Horace said...

Anonymous, instead of leaving a long response here, I've drafted a new post that can be found here.