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Checking our papers

posted by:Mark B. Salter // 11:59 PM // August 29, 2006 // ID TRAIL MIX

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At certain moments, we are asked to account for our movements. I recently applied for security clearance in the pursuit of research and filled out a long form – but the same is true of a landed immigration application or a curriculum vitae – all which I have also filled out in my time. In each of these dossiers, we write a story in which we are the lead, whom the camera never leaves. And we are confessing subjects. In modern society we are conditioned that, in David Lyon’s phrase, “if we have nothing to hide, we have nothing to fear.” We tell the doctor all of our symptoms, the lawyer all the details of our crime, the border agent the purpose of our visit, the professor all the factors that made the essay late. Self-knowledge and the propensity to self-disclosure is the interpreted as the hallmark of truth. It is nearly unimaginable to say of one’s life, “I just have no idea what happened that year – I was in love, drunk, traveling, ill. 1995 is lost to me.” Between jobs, on research leave, what-have-you – on filling out the landed immigrant form some years ago I laughed out loud at the idea of a “permanent” address. I am not an international man of mystery but as part of a peripatetic career there are some gaps in my story – months where I cannot account for my whereabouts. And, when presented to the authorities, stories need to be complete.

Though we are the authors of our own story, we are often not the key audience – the doctor, the lawyer, the border guard will adjudicate whether or not our story “makes sense.” I taught at the American University in Cairo between 2000 and 2003, traveling back the United States regularly throughout this time. Before the war on terror, the immigration inspectors would ask me my profession, and I would say that I taught in Cairo – and the response was uniformly positive. “We need more people there – good for you.” It was seen as an educational peace corps or an opportunity to make danger pay in the wild wild East. After the war on terror, I would say I taught in Cairo – and the response was “why?” I would say “I needed a job,” but it became a new burden to explain why I had made such a reckless decision. My narrative of the choice had not changed, but the administrative reception of that decision changed radically.

Different from fighting the stereotypes which accumulate on all of us to assert some kind of individual identity, I think we need to be on guard to whom we confess what. My barber knows I am a professor and he thinks that I take the summer off, have a job for life, and wear tweed. None of which are true, but it doesn’t really affect my opportunities. With my barber, the discord between the stereotype and the reality makes no odds. But, with the dean or the hiring committee, we sell ourselves as individuals who have been working since early childhood with the sole intention of being hired at Eastern Dropovia University. There is a pressure within the academic community (as well as the government I would argue) to have a single trajectory – a life which leads to this moment. No wrong tracks, no dead-ends, no mistakes, no blank spaces on the map. I have never filled out a grant application says “I studied this for a year before finding out someone else had written a book on the subject, so now I would like some money to study something new.” For a profession which prides itself on building knowledge, there is little discussion of failure.

Having experienced a few traumas recently, which interrupted the trajectory of my work, I am ever more aware of the expectations of this smooth, publicly-access history. In addition to this general confessionary pressure, I have noticed a particular institutional pressure to “explain” why my productivity dropped off at this or increased point at another. A hiring committee member once accused me that I was a “book” type of an academic rather than an “article” type of academic, and asked I explain why. The gap between one article and the next is a blank space which requires a story. My female and male colleagues face similar pressures when expecting or as new parents, for example. The price for the explanation of public behavior is a loss of privacy. As I write the cover-letter for a job application, I am aware of the need to justify “why Cairo,” “why this pause,” “why that article.”

Which leads me to consider “Rate my professor.com” and other public venues where my story is written by others. As a professor at a public institution, I am dissatisfied with the way that student evaluations are done – with some substantial research to support my belief that the contemporary way of evaluating teaching rewards certain types of teaching and discourages others. I am excited that students have an independent space to air their views which speaks to other students. Plainly, I am vain or conscientious enough to search myself on that site. I’m concerned that the folks running the site say that “students are the CUSTOMERS of professors” (Caps in original), which is a particular neoliberal view of education as a kind of trade school – but this is a kind of empowerment. But, I have to admit being concerned that “hotness” or beauty is up for adjudication, as described by the linked article the website authors use to justify the inclusion of the category,. The New York Times article “The Hunk Differential” argues that more attractive professors get higher ratings (all other things being equal). Rather than being a caveat, the hotness quotient becomes simply another part of the review. Cunningly, the website suggests to professors who are dissatisfied with their reviews that they should publicize “RMP.com” which “ALWAYS has a huge impact on the number of ratings and makes the site become less entertainment oriented.” For me, the ability of students to speak back to power in the classroom on “RMP.com” is worth the unfair or unflattering reviews – I have a similar anonymous blog on my own University-based course websites. However, to encourage students to evaluate their professors in terms of “hotness” and publicly post those comments crosses the line between professional and personal.

In a recent “Identity Trail” workshop, we discussed the culture of “myspace.com” in which adolescents often post personal information without fully understanding the privacy implications (see previous blog by Jeremy Hessing-Lewis on this website). With the increasing pressure to make universities more transparent, open, and accessible (which is laudable), as professors we are making more and more of our lives public. I am fairly adamant not to post photos of myself on the web, especially linked to my professional persona. I am happy to post my curriculum vitae and course plans. I am unwilling to post my measurements or medical history. In an interview with geographers Foucault once joked that he did not want to be pinned down by a label – “let others check our papers” he said. But, as I have argued here, especially in the current moment, we have to be cautious as to what our public papers say about our private lives.

Mark B. Salter is an Assistant Professor at the School of Political Studies, University of Ottawa.

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