Virtue vs. Virtuosity

Can you keep up with the barrage of news about women’s social standing these days? Whether it’s a ranking of how badly we fare in different Canadian cities–spoiler: Quebec cities love women the right way, whereas Alberta cities, not so much–or how we should just help ourselves because it’s in our power etc., it’s no news to the H&E community, really. It’s important to keep the conversation going on these topics, because silence, disinterest, and erasure continue to be the norm, one which fits into old ideas about female virtue, like the importance of modesty and humility, and of being seen, rather than heard.

What happens, when, on top of these cultural burdens, powerfully entrenched, although rarely acquiesced, women have to function in an environment of consistent peer-judgement? How can women in academia combat the persistent insecurity bred socially and professionally and acknowledge their expertise as virtuosity?

Maria Callas

Let me go back to music for a second: a life dedicated to becoming a professional musician, especially in the classical tradition, leads to the recognition of virtuosity. All the work, the hours, the sacrifice, the figurative and literal sweat, the carpal tunnel and the posture deficiencies: there is always the potential prize at the end, in the form of recognition. Historically, women musicians, especially celebrated sopranos, have been punished for daring to display their self-confidence with the label of “diva,” which has acquired strong connotations of histrionics if not outright hysterics.

Where do women academics stand? How is our labour to the profession, dedication, and years of honing critical skills rewarded? What constitutes virtuosity in academia? At what, if anything, do you consider yourself masterful? There are a couple of back-stories to my question. The first is personal: I’ve been lucky enough to have parents who have instilled a strong sense of confidence in me, so I’ve always trusted my skills, and, circuitously, this trust has led me to tackling new learning situations and new skill acquisition in turn. I love learning new things, and my bucket list is almost exclusively made up of learning experiences I want to take part in.

The second back-story comes back to the beginning of today’s post. Have you heard of this new book of the “Lean In” genre, which claims all women should do is be more confident and the world would become their oyster? As Jessica Valenti points out, it’s the newest of in this series of neoliberal quasi-feminist resuscitation of the old Horatio Alger genre. This new book masks the structural barriers that women face every step of the way, such as the ones exemplified by the study of how women fare in the largest 20 Canadian cities. Not to mention the vicious ways in which confident women have been and continue to be depicted in popular culture, from Medusa to Claire Underwood.

So, let me come back to my question, which also ties in with Melissa’s very productive prompts: what are you an expert in? what are you really good at? what’s your area of virtuosity? C’mon, make a list, check it twice regularly, amend it, supplement it, and share it. If you’ve spent so much time thinking, learning, practicing, writing, discussing, you have attained mastery! Ditch virtue, and flaunt your virtuosity*!

*yes, why not here in the comments?