I Look Like a Professor #ilooklikeaprofessor
At 23, as a women’s studies T.A., I dressed in a then-current fashion trend, the baby doll style, to make a point about how fashion at times infantilizes women. Students loved it. The supervising professor? Not so much. My interest in fashion and performance is seen as trivializing.
At 25, ink barely dry on my Master’s degree, I frequently got mistaken for a student, perhaps understandably, as many students at the art college where I taught were older than me. Students love that I am young though, and secretly I feel proud. I fall in love with teaching.
In my late twenties, on the job market, I engaged in long debates with members of my dissertation group about the best outfit to wear for interviews. I remember worrying that I should be in a skirt at the American Historical Association meetings, held in January, but the location that year was snowy. I ended up falling in the snow and being grateful I had chanced a pant suit.
At 30, other faculty and staff used my first name, while my male colleagues were referred to by their titles — in the very same conversations. I am working in women’s leadership and women’s studies, and I still feel like I cannot speak up about this.
At 33, a male student asked me out, and no I did not take it as a compliment. That same course was the only time I ever had a (male) student removed for blatant hostility and disruptive disrespect. Coincidence? Yet a female student told me that she was inspired to finish college because she wanted my life, the well-paying job, the apartment of my own, the pretty clothing. I realize some female students relate to me precisely because of what I represent, fashionable, fun, and feminist.
Throughout my early 40s, my wardrobe and appearance continue to be commented on, and often critiqued, mostly by other women in higher education. However, students ask me where I shop and we trade favorite places. I understand this as a desire to bond with a person who is playing an important role in their education. I am happy to have this easy way to connect with them. I select my outfits even more carefully with nods to current trends.
Over the years, in the quiet conversations shared at conferences, at after-panel drinks when we let off steam, via furious private messages, I have heard so many other professors’ accounts of how their appearance was thought to be at odds with their profession. In those moments I learned how easy it was for me, when I wanted, to look like a professor. Throw on a lady suit, put my hair back, and wear glasses (this was my on campus job interview look by the way) and I resembled a reasonable female approximation of “a professor” read as white, male, cis, straight, middle-class, ability privileged.
It was in fact my white, middle-class privilege, going all the way back to the days when I saw myself as a rebellious T.A., to play at times with what a professor was supposed to look like. No one was going to doubt my abilities when I had to have a student removed from a class. My career was not harmed, or ended, by disapproving comments or glances at my too-short dress. I can afford to bond with my students over high heels, both because I can literally afford too many pairs of shoes, but also because I can afford the IDGAF response to people who still don’t think you can profess in high heels.
The same is not true for many colleagues. I have never had to endure the painful experience of functioning as the professor in a classroom, but being denied the title. No one has mistaken me for a member of the janitorial staff or the UPS delivery person. I have never once been asked what I am physically doing present in the hallowed halls of academia and I can get to those hallowed halls easily because I am temporarily able-bodied. My straight family is celebrated, quite literally, by a baby shower in the faculty lounge.
#Ilooklikeaprofessor, a hashtag started by Adeline Koh and Sara B. Pritchard, highlights the many painful moments of being told we don’t belong in the academy and the microagressions that force professors who don’t fit the Google image stereotype to expend important energy dealing with negativity.
#ilooklikeaprofessor is celebratory in that it makes visible the many interwoven identities of professors. You can’t be what you cannot see and #ilooklikeaprofessor reflects the desire of so many of us to show students who may not see themselves, either in the content of their courses or in the person at the front of the room that yes, they can aspire too.
What is your story?