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Who Are We? Scholarly Identity Under Interrogation

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Egg Art Blue” by Benjamin Reed via Flickr

On my first day as a student-teacher in a public high school (1999), my mentor teacher left me in the room at 8:20 a.m. to take a call in the front office. As students began filing into school for the day and eventually into her room, the minutes dragged on. It was 8:30. The bell rang. More minutes. Eventually, at 8:35, one of the students in the Senior Literature class said: “Are you our sub?” I was wearing a tie, but I was not the sub. I hadn’t taught a day in my life.

On my first day teaching in a university classroom, after three years of K-12 teaching under my belt, I flipped the script. In a classroom populated by mostly working adults older than me, I took a seat ten minutes early in one of the desks. Students trickled in, but this time they nodded and talked to me as if I were a peer. They talked about their difficulties fighting traffic to get to campus. They wondered what the class was going to be about. At two or three minutes into class time, I took my place on top of the desk at the front of the class and introduced myself. Shocked, one of the students said, “you’re our professor?”

Throughout my career, I have balanced carefully across identity lines that exist in the academy. As our Hybrid Pedagogy project has unfolded over the last several months, I have started to reconsider this issue of professional identity. I earned my Ph.D. last year, and I don’t have a tenure track job. I have taken educational work both inside and outside the university, either for pay or as a volunteer. More importantly, I view both formal and informal educative systems as crucial for our intellectual development. I work to selectively merge the classroom environment with the world outside. I drag the outside world in with guests and media; I send my students out into the world with projects and interviews.

Hybrid Pedagogy begins from the premise that “all learning is hybrid,” which is also true of our identity as academics. For example, as a graduate teaching assistant at Georgia State in 2007, I decided that I would pilot the use of a new digital portal for the department. Before that moment, I never thought about myself as a “techie” teacher. A friend and colleague of mine left a teaching fellowship last year to join an initiative which has him introducing professors and grad students to what the digital humanities can bring to their research. Another friend recently left teaching to embrace an administrative position focused on freshman literacy and retention. Still another spends half her week as a lecturer and the other half as an administrator of a freshman writing program. All of us juggle spousal and/or parental identities that further enrich and complicate our collection of intersecting passions.

New Faculty Majority addresses related issues from the perspective of workplace equity and labor. Its national summit in January was covered across the web (see John Casey, Jr.’s blog and Brian Croxall’s article for Prof Hacker for starters). NFM President Maria Maisto’s column “A Professor by Any Other Name” last month on USC’s 21st Century Scholar considers the economic identity tied to words like “adjunct,” “non-tenure track,” and “ordinary faculty.” From the perspective of labor equity, the terminology used to describe professional identity is important ground for activists to reclaim.

NFM speaks to my own professional hybridity (some might call it “contingency”), but what I am talking about is ultimately more personal than economic. I will give an example. I am currently involved in three projects beyond my teaching responsibilities: a grant funded IREX program working with professors at the University of Baghdad, potential work this summer supported by a Gates Grant on building an inter-university hybrid class model, and Hybrid Pedagogy. Sometimes I worry that I am running the risk of a fractured academic identity. All of these projects are partially motivated by an interest in remaining highly employable, but they also represent related passions of mine. My bringing them together and into conversation constitutes an act of identity composition.

Whether we identity ourselves as tenure track or non-tenure track, as teachers or scholars, as traditional or cutting edge, it behooves us to examine these identities carefully, lest we align ourselves with practices, colleagues, or scholarship that don’t represent us well. Plenty of academics in the digital humanities advise us to cultivate and control our online identities, to demonstrate agency in how they are constructed. In the same way, we should meditate on our identity as scholars on the other side of the screen. In doing so, we can be just as methodical, we can find projects that best explore our interests, and we can contribute our strongest talents to the academic community.

I felt anxious about telling that high school senior in 1999, “I am not your substitute,” because, in a certain sense, I was. With thirteen years of experience since then, I often approach questions of identity with an equal amount of caution. I thoroughly identify with some fields (critical pedagogy and “the humanities,” broadly defined); they are, in a sense, mine. But our work is most productive when we define that territory and explore what’s just across the boundary.

We would love to see a discussion in the comments section below that offers your own best practices for academic identity composition. What sorts of moves do you make to bridge the various sides of your professional and personal selves? How do evolving technologies and new media complicate or enable your attempts to compose an academic identity?

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