academic work · empowerment · serious · silly

Notes from the conference circuit

‘Tis the season…for conferences. This week it’s the 2013 John Douglas Taylor Conference at McMaster University – “You Can’t be Serious.”

This afternoon, I attended a Round Table Discussion on “The Engaged University” where the panelists considered the “possibilities for ethical encounters through university practices of community engagement.” Edward Bartlett and Katia Hildebrandt, both of University of Regina offered an intriguing discussion of our serious and silly sides in the academy. Drawing upon Erving Goffman, they argue that, as participants in the university, we all select masks related to our serious and silly selves. Whether or not we select a serious mask depends upon the situation and our role within it. They note that professors are accorded serious masks in their roles as respected authorities, but may of course also choose a silly mask when appropriate. In contrast, undergraduate students have more freedom to wear their silly masks. Ever sit at the back of a lecture hall? See all of those laptops open to facebook – that’s the silly mask.

The crucial point that Bartlett and Hildebrant make is that graduate students experience a more challenging hybrid identity. A graduate student might where their “silly” student mask in the classroom in the morning, and then re-enter that space in the afternoon wearing their “serious” mask as a university instructor.

When I think about many of the professional development challenges that I experienced throughout my PhD, I think this articulation of the dual-identity really captures well the confusions, frustrations, and marginalities of the graduate student position. Being at times a student and at others a member of staff renders interactions with other students and staff complicated.

My personal inclination is that, as apprenticing academics, graduate students should be accorded more seriousness. If graduate students are expected to mentor undergraduates through running tutorials and working as sessional instructors, then they should be treated as serious contributors to the education process.

When I look back on my experiences as a teaching assistant and sessional instructor, the negative moments that stand out for me are all of the instances where I felt vulnerable or marginalized in relation to my undergraduate students and the department, and consequently over-reacted (defensively) in order to reinforce my serious mask. I was seeking power, not because I derived pleasure from power, but because I felt utterly powerless in my role as an instructor.

How do you balance your serious and silly identities in the classroom?

One thought on “Notes from the conference circuit

  1. This is a great post, and I really identify with what you write, Danielle, about reacting defensively to reinforce your tenuous sense of power in the face of powerlessness. I am working on that balance, but most of this year I felt utterly powerless and as a result shut people out. And the more they 'poked me' to try to get me to be friendly the more I had to clam up. It is unpleasant to feel totally and utterly regarded as a joke and to have your work mocked even when your grades are solid. And you are establishing yourself as a researcher, outside of your home institution. How else can a person respond when trying to maintain some sense of dignity than to be overly serious? I tried to find the positive, to make dark jokes of seriously difficult situations in order to maintain balance, but I realized that there was little room for humour when my entire career–and my person–was so frequently regarded as little more than a sick joke.

    I think tenured faculty (especially full professors) and undergraduates have more freedom to be relaxed and silly because while the former have little left to prove and know they are fantastic (and everyone else knows it too) undergraduates are still getting to know themselves so no one is really paying attention to them yet (low expectations=freedom, I suppose). So where do we fit in as graduate students when we have to be serious professionals in the classroom (as students and instructors), at conferences and work shops, at departmental events, when interacting with faculty or staff, and when representing our home institutions internationally? I also wonder how these silly and serious masks relate to other markers of relative powerlessness such as gender, race, or sexual orientation? Is the freedom to be silly and still be taken seriously a sign of privilege?


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