Sunday, September 16, 2007

Re: On Academic Masculinty

Earlier this evening, an anonymous commenter made the following point about a fairly recent post on male bodies in academia: S/he wrote:

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.
The commenter raises some important points, and ones that I myself have been grappling with. I'm not sure if this reader is familiar with my whole process here, but I've only been exercising in earnest since May, and I've been trying to think through my responses as I've had them. I think if you look through some of my posts, you'll see that I'm not as consistently judgmental about bodies as I may appear in parts of that particular post.

That said, there are some blind spots that crop up, some of which I am not always vigilant about working through.

Here is what I will say: I do my academic work on bodies in performance, I've taught classes on the culture and politics of food, and I am deeply aware of the biases the commenter points out. While I do not want to reinforce these body hierarchies (which sometimes in these posts I do occasionally and inadvertently reinforce), I do resist the notion that academia is only "about the mind," for several reasons.

1) The mind is part of the body, and the way we construct our identity (which is both intentional and beyond the grasp of intention) operates in both discursive (mental/intellectual) and physical(embodied) ways. I think to say that this is a mind-only profession sometimes simply moves the hierarchies to different grounds.

2) My point here is to note the contradiction between the use of embodied (and masculinist) metaphors while actual bodies are being hidden, which sometimes seems a rhetorical strategy to sublimate masculinist discourse while maintaining its hegemony. So I think that reinforcing this "about the mind and not about the body" divide is actually disguising some real issues in the discourse of gender in academia.

3) Our bodies are part of our work, especially if we teach. The body is a signifier, and while I am interested in resisting normative notions of bodies, I do think that ignoring the body altogether is an ineffective and potentially counter-productive rhetorical strategy.

Also, I am, for reasons that I can only barely defend, annoyed by colleagues who don't consider their appearance in the classroom, and these are reasons that could likely be linked to bourgeois values and the like: I want to be taken seriously, and as a professional. When I see my colleagues presenting themselves in "casually ugly" ways, I read it as signifying a disrespect for the work of the classroom, a view I recognize as probably way out of date and maybe even classist. And yet, I cannot shake the idea that not bothering to present myself as a professional sends a message to my students that I don't respect them or the work we undertake together. I invite people to help me undo that reasoning, but right now, that's how it functions for me.

I will say, though, that the commenter seems to conflate my general (and again, perhaps only barely defensible) annoyance (ok, so "deplore" is an overstatement) for certain kinds of sartorial choices with a distaste for certain kinds of bodies and exercise regimes, something that I will say is uncategorically not the case, both about the way I feel, or the way I think this post is constructed. My only point about many (though not nearly all) colleagues being unwilling to talking about exercise is the way that this is merely a flipping of the binary at work in the rest of the culture-- while the dominant discourse seems intent on enforcing the exact kinds of hierarchies that the commenter wants to avoid, I think that looking sideways at anyone who even wants to address the issue suggests that for an academic, thinking about the body is as bad as how dominant discourse works to alienate those who don't subscribe to an ideal body image.

Now, on this last point I'll concede: it is difficult in this cultural climate to opt out of the body culture and, at the same time, not feel judged by anyone who wants to discuss bodies at all. Entirely understandable. I simply wish that we could talk about body culture in ways that don't necessarily alienate our own bodies from our discussions, no matter what the shape of the body in question may be. Utopian, perhaps.

The point is, just as the obsession with bodies (and the shape of that obsession) in the dominant discourse carries all sorts of demeaning and disciplining messages, our obsession with ignoring our bodies and the embodiedness of our profession can be similarly demeaning and disciplining, and can mask hierarchies and power structures that are no less in operation than those featured in Cosmo and in Muscle and Fitness.


Sisyphus said...

Interesting conversation! I shall ponder this further.

In a random aside, one of my friends who was in the throes of frantically finishing a dissertation just developed a blood clot and had to be hospitalized. So I would say thinking of yourself as only a mind and dissociating our work from our bodies can literally be dangerous.

Neophyte said...

Horace, I've really been enjoying these posts. I'm not necessarily with you on every single point, but I enjoy them because of your honesty and forthrightness in setting out how you live these things. I don't like myself for playing this card, but it is very rare to find such honesty and forthrightness in a straight man, and I have to say it's damned refreshing.

I thought of you the other day while I was carrying on quite the lofty-and-professional conversation with a woman at a conference, and then we both walked awkwardly - and silently - into separate bathroom stalls. The "Oh my god, we have bodies as well as ideas" moment actually had the power to kill our articulate banter and drive us to silence -- totally amazing.

Dr. Virago said...

Hm, I wonder if your commenter confused you with the guy who wrote the awful Chronicle piece on how tenure is like exercise and that no pain means no gain.

Anyway, I have to say I'm a little sick of people who treat exercise as merely a means to sculpting one's body for the benefit of the sexual market and/or the gaze of others. Hello! People! Ever hear of thing called heart disease?! Or high cholesterol?! Or how about the *radical* notion that some people actually *like* the exercise they do, or are even pretty good at it, or see it as a *hobby* rather than "exercise," or like setting non-work-related goals for themselves?! Sheesh.

OK, end of slightly tangential rant.

So after your original post that prompted this person's comment, I brought it up with a female colleague of mine while we were showering in the rec center on campus. (No, really, I swear!) And she pointed out that the option of the "casually ugly wardrobe" really is only available to men. There's a quasi-equivalent for women, but it's not really the same thing, and I think women who attempt it are frequently punished for it in silent but systemic ways (in student evals, in not being taken seriously in leadership positions, etc.). The importance of "polish" for women -- even academic women -- is stressed more than for men. Only one of my male colleagues could get away with wearing a stained t-shirt and shorts to class. The ability to erase the body through such ugliness is a male privilege and I think you were right to point out that the embodiment that's mask finds other ways to resurface. (The repressed always returns, eh?)

Oh, and on the subject of the gusy who wear the stained t-shirts and shorts to class (and not just in summer school), I also share your hunch that it shows a disrespect for the students. It's always the guys who write short and sharp comments on student papers and keep scant office hours. They're also likely to be the guys who call female junior profs "girls" and yet fancy themselves radical lefties who "deconstruct the hierarchy of the classroom" with their casual wear. Oh please.

And we're not brains on a stick. Our bodies can have a serious impact on our work and vice versa, in the classroom and out. If I spend a day reading, writing, and grading, I have lower back and neck soreness. It's particularly bad when I'm in libraries looking at manuscripts on the foam props, because I can't lift them up to be more ergonomic. Exercising *allows* me to do my job and keeps my body from sabotaging my abilities to do it.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Yes, yes, yes - I don't deny that it would be nice to do something like wear robes to teach in and therefore be able not to worry about bodies. Or maybe teach from behind a screen. Oh, wait, that wouldn't work very well... but yes, I think the "this is a life of the mind" thing is dangerous in that 1) we're not just brains on sticks, and 2) yes, I think it does work to maintain a masculinist discourse. Certainly, academia is very much about the mind, don't get me wrong, but we can't understand what's around us in a non-embodied way.

I find it weird that any academic would want to shut down conversation on any subject, and to ask why you'd even want to discuss working out with academics. Well, one, I do know a lot of academics who do work out (in various ways), and do consider it an important part of staying healthy, not something primarily about our image-obsessed age (though I doubt we can ever completely escape that obsession). And I think it's important for academics to be able to engage in conversation about something OTHER than their work. (It's not THAT much a life of the mind!) But two, because working out can/should be a subject of academic discourse just like anything else. If the gym is a stifling cultural apparatus (and I have some sympathy with that, too), then why not discuss it as such, rather than avoid it as distasteful?

I have to confess that I share your ideas about looking professional for my job, and that I agree it's got classist overtones, and moreover, the image of professional can be problematic because it tends to imply business and reinforce the idea of education as a business. (Though I should add that I never wear suits - not that I think no one should, it's just not for me.) I do think that there are many kinds of casual dress that are not ugly dress, however, and that someone can look entirely appropriate teaching in jeans, depending how they play it. Looking professional also often plays into a kind of capitalist consumer culture too, having the right clothes (and the money to pay for it, too).

Though I realize that for me, wearing the "professional" clothes is very much about claiming an identity and projecting a sense of authority in the classroom. I honestly don't know if I could do so wearing jeans and a sweatshirt to teach in. But even if I could, would my classroom be different? If I weren't trying to set myself apart from my students sartorially, would that help or harm the atmosphere I want to create? (Ideally, I can see how dressing casually/like students might create a more egalitarian environment, but in practice, I think students would respect my authority less, which would have more negative repercussions. Because as always, men can get away with wearing crappier clothes in the classroom than women can. I'm quite sure of this one.)

Okay, gotta stop rambling, but thanks for a good post!

Anastasia said...

this is actually kind of a response to new kid, whose comment I like very much! I tend not to dress in what would be considered a conventionally "professional" manner and I do think it does something to deconstruct the hierarchy of the classroom, though I think my real work in that arena is in my manner, not my dress. I am deeply engaged with students--it isn't about disrespect. I really dislike the link between respect (either of self or others) and how one dresses. it seems much more about performance of class and socio-economic status.

but new kid frames it this way: casually/like students. that really struck me because in terms of fashion as such, even price of clothes, my students are consistently dressed a whole heck of a lot better than I am. that's interesting in itself, when students have the means and the inclination to come in carrying a bag that cost more than the cost of my entire wardrobe, for instance. they wear clothes I will never be able to afford. and because most of them are pre-professional, they do show up dressed very carefully now and then, esp. as seniors. in that environment, very clearly opting out of the business of dressing conventionally and professionally could be an asset, depending on what you're trying to accomplish.

I was also going to weigh in on women and polis but I don't think I should. I go my own way in lots of ways, including dress, and it just kind of works for me (so far..) but I it does clothes certain doors. That said, I run around looking very unconventional and so far it hasn't caused me any problems with students. that said, I'm not actually that far outside the norm in my field, which can be a little eccentric in terms of appearance.

Anastasia said...

umm it does close certain doors. :)

anonymousie said...

I know you're talking about masculinity here, so I'm not trying to ream you, but the fact is that this non-embodied academic discourse is only available to men. (Dr. Virago's female colleague indicated the same thing about the wardrobe.)

As a woman standing in front of the classroom, my body is always automatically on display to my students, male or female. Last week, I taught William Blake, focusing on his vision of sacred sexuality. And the whole time, I was intensely conscious of my body, of the dress I'd chosen to wear that day, and of the gazes of my students.

Women instructors are never going to be viewed as unembodied minds, b/c the female body is automatically marked as different. Even if we wore robes (which sometimes appeals to me) or attempt to disguise those markers of difference (breasts/pregnancies, etc.), we would still be drawing attention to our difference simply by virtue of trying to hide it.