The other day, a colleague stepped into an elevator at the same time that I did. We established that we were headed to same floor and the same meeting. We exchanged some pleasantries about the new year, the new term, the usual. As the elevator door was about to open, she turned, looked at me very carefully, and asked, “Who are you?”
I’ve been quietly dining out on this encounter. Even now, I’m savouring it contentedly. And I’ve been trying to figure out why. It’s a joke that makes me laugh even though I’m part of the punchline.
I’ve been a tenured professor at my university for over a decade now. In that time, I have served as the Undergraduate Programme Director for my department, then Chair, and now Associate Dean. This colleague has been a colleague in the graduate programme for my department. We’ve exchanged emails where I’ve asked her to serve on a thesis committee for one of my grad students. I’ve served on committees where I’ve read her syllabi.
I guess I thought I’ve pretty, ummm, present.
I am so glad that she didn’t try to fake it. She could just as easily have pretended that she knew exactly who I was and she would have gotten through the whole meeting with no trouble. Indeed, it was one of those meetings where we went around the room and introduced ourselves right at the beginning.
There was something wonderful about being a little invisible.
Even though I am part of scholarly communities that have demanded more visibility for writers of colour, and more presence for thinkers who theorize and engage with differences, I am surprised to realize that my own invisibility at work can have its own contentedness.
It’s counter-intuitive in so many ways, but it made me feel weirdly delighted to have been unseen. It made me realize that I am at a point in my work where I am happy to be unknown in person and known by the work only when it matters. And this contentment, I know, only comes because I feel valued and seen and heard when it counts. I didn’t always feel this way — I’m pretty sure there was another time when an encounter like this would have hurt my feelings — and feeling so ok now makes me realize that this is its own career milestone. I didn’t realize that career advancement would come in the form of not being recognized or seen by a senior colleague. But I’ll take the wins when they come and I’m not looking back.
I am just another person running around campus, forgetting her lunch, going to meetings, and making small talk in an elevator.
So, back to work. Nothing to see here.