Who Gets To Say #ILookLikeAProfessor? And Who Would Want To?

Inspired by the hashtag #ILookLikeAnEngineer on Twitter, Sara B. Pritchard and I spun off the accompanying #ILookLikeAProfessor on Thursday 6th August, helped very much by the work of Michelle Moravec. The #ILookLikeAProfessor hashtag has continued to flourish over the last few days, with many of us — women, people of color, “foreigners,” queer and disabled folk — sharing stories of how often we are told that we don’t look like professors.

Like Michelle did earlier this morning, I’m taking this one step further by writing this post to share my own story, and to expand a little on what we mean by the hashtag. If you’ve ever felt like, or been told, that you don’t “look” like you belong in academia, I hope you share yours too.

I remember how just two years ago, coming back to campus while away on fellowship, the bus driver grunted, “Thought you’d graduated.” When I responded that “I am a professor,” I got “Coulda fooled me!” as a reply. When I told the story to one of my colleagues, her eyes rolled to the back of head, her commenting: “You’re one of the most professionally dressed professors in the faculty.” At that time, when I was still pre-tenure, this was true — pantsuits and tweed jackets were my uniform.

It’s not difficult to imagine why I get remarks like this. There’s a lot going against me in an American classroom when Google image searches for English professor look like this:

As an Asian woman in America, I am not what my usual student thinks of when they think of who should be in front of the classroom. Indeed, since I was an undergraduate English major Americans often thought then when I said that I was majoring in English, that I was learning English as a second language.

My personality also doesn’t jive with the stereotypical images of Asian women in popular culture: demure, mysterious, aloof, ladylike, feminine. In fact the opposite of all those adjectives probably describes me pretty well. This works for me and against me. On the one hand, my personality allows me to fit into the “normal” American archetype of the outspoken, confident woman pretty well, and there are times where I do get rewarded for being this way. On the other hand, in situations when what I call my “container of Asianness” is what is expected of me, not being stereotypically Asian is used to penalize me for my behavior.

All of this is to give some context to why I took part in this hashtag: to raise awareness that bodies like mine should not be made to feel out of place in academia; that our bodies belong here as much as the stereotypical white male bodies that populate Google Images.

This is not to say, though, that the hashtag #ILookLikeAProfessor is meant to say that there is no academic inequality between the ranks. When I write #ILookLikeAProfessor, I mean that anyone who teaches in higher education ought to get the respect (and remuneration) that comes with being a “professor.” At my university, all teaching faculty, TT or non, adjunct or permanent, alt-ac, are all addressed as “professor,” so long as you teach. (Not everybody gets the same remuneration though.)

Some contingent faculty have written that they do not want to be addressed as “professor” because adjuncts, unlike full-time, tenure-track staff, do not get the basic conditions they need to actually “profess” (a living wage salary with benefits, an office to work and meet with students, a voice on the faculty). For these people, “professor” may smack of covering over privilege in a way they do not want to.

And I agree. #ILookLikeAProfessor is not meant to pour salve over the terrible conditions of academic labor today. It simply is a rallying cry that bodies which are not-white, not-male, not-cis/het, not-abled, can and should be counted as bodies who also deserve respect within academia.

#ILookLikeAProfessor isn’t a catch-all. Rather, I’m interpreting the hashtag as a way to rally people whose bodies or orientations have been used to discriminate them and to tell them that they have no place in academia. If you teach in higher education in any way, you deserve the respect that comes with the title. Grad student, alt-ac, adjunct, contingent, tenure-track: if you teach in higher education, you deserve to say #ILookLikeAProfessor.

But #ILookLikeAProfessor is not an end in itself. It should also open up discussion about what makes up a professor and whether our ideas of the “professor” should remain the way they are. That, however, is probably the work of another hashtag, one which #ILookLikeAProfessor has only just begun.