the awkward politics of going public

the ways in which adolescents make themselves known has long been a source of fascination for me, even (i suspect) from the time i was an adolescent myself. i would watch my peers preen for one another, show off the latest jelly shoes and bracelets, steal some unsuspecting boy’s jacket as a way to get on said boy’s radar (only to be blacklisted by same said boy as unstable and a jacket thief), stay after-school to clean brushes for the art teacher, or leave some artwork in conspicuous places (sometimes in the form of spray paint on walls or pen tattoos on desks). my own “get in trouble at school at your own risk/peril” upbringing gave me pause and kept me firmly in the “good girl” status throughout my schooling years.

long before j.k. rowling popularized the idea, i spent much of childhood and adolescence under my own cloak of invisibility. so quiet was my speaking voice, that in high school my teachers would admonish others who mumbled as belonging to “[my] school of speech.” i didn’t mind this because the alternative, it seemed, was to be typecast in the way some children are (when others are given — either unwittingly or intentionally — the creative space to be many things and try on different ways of being) as early as 5 or 6 years of age. i suppose i was typecast in a different way: the quiet one. at least until sophomore year in high school when i met my friend j who sat in front of me in the row closest to the chalkboard. and quietly she would write notes to me and i, cautiously — oh, so, cautiously — would write back, and not without the occasional giggle. it seems simple now, but the chalkboard back then really was a new modality with which someone was asking me to communicate and participate. sure, i was mildly reprimanded, but i’m pretty that my sophomore year english teacher was far more delighted that someone had gotten me to transgress anything in some way that she let us continue our “secret” communication.

today’s communicative landscape is far more multifaceted — i’ll spare both of us the trite listing of tools, gadgets, and platforms used by “today’s youth,” but suffice it to say that it sometimes makes me long for the days of the artfully folded note slipped between hands in a crowded hallway and just as stealthily unwrapped, digested, and relished as talk of hemingway or cosines filled the air all around the room. these artifacts of communication helped to create those alternative, special, intimate spaces within the busy and occasionally chaotic energy of a somewhat large, public high school.

today’s professional landscape, the academic terrain to be precise, can sometimes feel like the same crowded, high school. and all around are people doing what they can to be known, only the scale and scope of their endeavors reaches far beyond brick and concrete structure where many of us spend four years of our lives. do the archetypes so cleverly portrayed in countless movies about high school and other popular culture texts (some of which are listed here) — and which are at the center of more than a few scholarly inquiries (penny eckhert’s ‘jocks and burnouts‘, betsy rymes’ ‘conversational borderlands‘, and doug foley’s ‘learning capitalist culture‘ are a few that immediately come to mind) — hold true outside of the circumscribed temporal and spatial boundaries of secondary schooling? can we think of the class president, with her plastered on smile and eagerness to please while ruling the roost, who circulates currently in our midst? or the all-star, multi-sport jock with his/her proven track record of earning measurable accolades in seemingly unrelated endeavors — always restless, running 10 miles or writing an article, before the medal/ink from the last one is even cold/dried; adrenaline is never in short supply for these folks, it seems. then there are the ones who are given some moniker of royalty at one of the various group gatherings — often the proverbial triple threats who, like the all-star jock types, continue to move forward and laterally almost at the same time. they have become known, are known; how will they continue to be known, and for what? what is it the tangible fruit of this “becoming known”? is it personal or for the sake of the “team” which in some cases might be the communities that are at the center of these various projects and endeavors.

as a high school student, i dabbled in more than a few activities but my role in them is telling: sure, i was involved with the school play but save one small stint on the stage, i spent most of my time in the sound booth; and i practically lived and breathed the school literary magazine and very reluctantly included a few pieces of my own, but my real joy was laying out the magazine and watching the pieces speak to each other. my ‘crowning moment’ occurred during a state language competition in which i had to recite a poem in french — for an audience of one, because they called us in individually to perform our prepared pieces. i had practiced the poem — really a fable in poem form written by jean de la fontaine — for hours, perfecting my gestures, head movements, inflection of my voice in rhythm with the meter. (i believe i performed part of it perched on a chair. yeah, i was into it.) with the exception of this post, i don’t think i’ve ever shared this information outside of the people who were present that, which included our french teacher and the few students who were also involved in the day’s events, each of us budding francophiles.

this brings me back to the question that motivated this post: must we, as academics, cultivate our skills as performers as we figure out this gig? is it enough to go quietly about the work that moves us? publication is certainly one arena in which most of us do publicize our work, within the boundaries accorded to us by journals, conference review panels, and editorial boards. but the same gadgets and gizmos that are offering ever new platforms on which adolescents are telling their tales and hocking their (identity) wares, many of which i enjoy greatly, are presenting the same platforms for grown-ups to tell tales and hock wares.

can those of us who preferred the corners, rich as they were, in our adolescence avoid participation in the centers if we want to thrive and do justice to/for/with the people with whom we work? do we sacrifice access (to potential collaborators, funders, employers) when we eschew the acts of making known in which some of our colleagues engage, that may (definitely) give us pause? are we naive to trust that good work will reach wide audiences?

i would be remiss if i didn’t disclose that i, too, tweet, blog, and use facebook, and have used these and other outlets to inform about and solicit support for youth performances and related events, to share fruits of collective labor, and to spread the word about friends’ and colleagues’ books/projects/causes/and other artifacts in need of wider audiences. so perhaps my own angela-chase-like reticence is what is both holding me back and also sparking the chagrin i experience when i encounter extreme-self-promotion*. there must be a happy medium, but in the meantime all of this talk of high school has made me hungry for a teen angst marathon. and speaking of angela chase


*the “extreme” in “extreme-self-promotion” has its roots in a phrase my mother once used when kindly requesting that i inform one of my younger siblings about the dangers of premature physical involvement while dating.  she called it “extreme physical contact.” i squirmed and later (many years later)  laughed, and now i wonder whether she might have been onto something… there is such a thing as too much too soon.
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