From Frances Sprout! Who very kindly introduced herself to me at, yes, a panel on social media in higher ed, and who offered a post. Some great back-to-school musings on being personal, in public, as we all dust off our satchels and our lesson plans.
Ever since I first discovered Hook and Eye, I’ve wanted to comment on it: at first, simply to congratulate its collaborators on creating this welcome venue; regularly since then because some post has reflected my experience so brilliantly or another has galvanized me to protest or another has moved me to share a sexist moment in anticipation of some feminist solidarity. Yet I’ve always held back. Why? Because to do so, I would either have to hide – or own up to – my own blogs, signalled as soon as another reader clicks on the avatar marking my comment. Hiding (registering another name, keeping it separate from my Google/Blogger identity) felt cowardly, but I wasn’t ready to own my digital corpus yet. Instead, stalling has been my chosen response for the past year, while I regularly composed numerous imaginary posts and comments “outing” myself. And then I met Aimée at an ACCUTE panel in Fredericton. Only two months later, and here’s my submission for a potential guest post.
The irony about my continued reluctance to expose myself is that my blog, Materfamilias Writes, began from an impulse to integrate my academic life with the rest of it. As well, I hoped to free up my writing voice from the strangling effect of dissertation-writing, a hyper-awareness of my internal editor. And perhaps most honestly, I wanted to satisfy my urge to write without the demands of research, difficult to achieve with a 4/4 teaching schedule. (I’ve been pleased to discover that the habit of regular non-academic writing has, in fact, led to a small, but satisfying, file of research-based writing.) Writing about my quotidian pursuits satisfied these goals, but left me self-conscious – at least in academic venues – about my less-than-scholarly focus.
How much less scholarly, you ask? Well, let’s see. My most common tags are “shoes,” “knitting,” “what I wore,” “garden,” “Paris,” “food,” “family,” and, more recently, “granddaughter.” All those pieces of life (excepting family and granddaughter, I hope) most likely to be dismissed as superficial. Not particularly associated with “the life of the mind.”
As well, as my community of fellow bloggers has grown and coalesced, I write increasingly about life for women “of a certain age.” Not only write about it, but also share photos of myself in that genre some of you may know as What I Wore/What I’m Wearing. I know other academics do this – Audi at Fashion for Nerds is a great example, as are the collaborative blogs Academichic (sadly seemingly defunct! --ed.) and In Professorial Fashion – but these stylish academic bloggers are all considerably younger than I am. Besides vaulting the hurdles that separate the “life of the mind” from ornamentation of the body, I’m contending with a social expectation that women my age (58, since you’re asking) not draw attention to their dress. Claiming visibility is too often rewarded with that horrid butcher-derived label, “Mutton dressed as lamb.”
And visibility, of course, is a huge issue when one teaches 4 and 4. I’m up in front of that classroom for twelve hours each week, scrutinized by a tough crowd. Disgruntled at having to write about poetry when they only want a B.Comm ticket to ride, my students may well delight at the possibilities for ridicule inherent in a post with photos of me “restyling” an old pair of jeans, a vintage sweater, demonstrating the value of Fluevog heels for enlivening a ho-hum skirt. I believe in the politics of posting about my late-middle-age pursuit of personal style, but I’ve so far been relieved that Materfamilias and Frances Sprout have been distinct beings, occupying parallel, but mainly separate spheres. That relief is doubled when I picture my dissertation supervisor stumbling across my blog (my security is ensured by the unlikelihood of her wasting time as an internet flaneuse).
The panels on blogging I’ve attended at recent academic conferences haven’t made me feel any more comfortable – the blogs discussed are most often scholarly in focus, or occasionally creative, with an emphasis on experimentation. Even the name I chose just over four years ago sometimes embarrasses me: I wanted to signal the importance of my family life, the way my role – as mother of four grown children – acts as a balancing counterweight to the challenges of academe; instead, I worry that I appear to fetishize a retro-domesticity, never, ever part of my program. Even the gap between the name of my blog, Materfamilias Writes, and the key words of my URL, materfamiliasknits, seems to signal a gap between my claim to a writing (thus allied to academe in a small way) life and the reality of a domestic limitation. You might want to write, sweetie, but what you really should stick to is your knitting.
I’ve been taking some baby steps lately though, trying to own my digital corpus with something like the politics that propel me to own my physical body, to show photographs of what a late-middle-aged woman looks like in her jeans. The first baby step came involuntarily. I was pushed, in fact, by the Vancouver Opera when their Social Media Manager asked me to join the “live bloggers” during performances throughout 2009-10 and 2010-11. I had barely said “yes” to the opportunity when I realized my IRL name was being linked to my blog; googling it could show students a direct path to my blog. I gulped, thought about that reality, and carried on. Since most of them are more likely to click on Rate Your Professor than on a weird Latin name, I have not, so far, noticed any increase in classroom snickering. More recently, when signing up for a Twitter account, I used my real name on my profile, although I tweet as “Materfam” to continue building my blog readership. As well, using TweetDeck to send Twitter posts to Facebook means more colleagues may follow the breadcrumbs to my other side, and I’m trying to accept that this is an okay, if not definitively a good thing.
Because much of what I have to offer as a teacher, and even, I’d argue, as a scholar, was built in that other part of my life. I was in my early 40s, with four kids, before I completed my undergrad, over 50 when my PhD was finally done. I will never catch up to the scholarly research foundation built by those of you who have been immersed in academe from your 20s. But I have a wealth of life experience and tangible skills that I am convinced can – and really, must – be integrated with any scholarship and teaching that I do. So, whew!, here’s an attempt to do that, integrating my digital selves in a continuing effort to build an authentic life, in the classroom, in the library, and beyond, I’m finally free to comment as my “self” (however Judith Butler might problematize that notion) on future HookandEye posts.