Calling a spade a spade

Lately I’ve been thinking about a horizontal eyebrow piercing. It’s an idle thought. I doubt I’ll ever modify any part of my face. My reasoning has less to do with how it might affect my employment opportunities, however, and more to do with issues like my tendency to develop raised scars, or the number of times I faceplant on my laptop or my bed, which can’t be good for healing. I’ve dealt with some difficult healing processes with the tattoos and piercings I already sport, and right now I’m not willing to modify my sleeping position further.

Talking about body modification may seem like an odd entry point to a discussion of information transparency in academia, but bear with me.I recently attended a conference that, historically, I have loved passionately; it occurs at the end of the academic year and feels like a simultaneous respite and revitalizing force, nonstop intellectual stimulation that is–dare I say it–diverse, poetic, truly interdisciplinary, fun. This conference inspired me to wholeheartedly embrace open access despite what it could do for my employment possibilities. It inspired me to rethink my philosophy about information transparency such that I wouldn’t feel hypocritical about it, and to be at peace with the notion that these choices–like all the choices I’ve made preceding this moment–could potentially affect my chances at tenure-track employment. This initially seemed daunting, but in truth, I never expected to be employable in the traditional sense of the word. I’m a writer. I’ve narrowly avoided being a starving artist, but I embarked on this career path knowing it was a distinct possibility, the point being that I’ve always been willing to sacrifice certain potentials in furtherance of a large goal that I’ve always perceived as fulfilling to self and community. Deciding to post drafts and publish only in open-access journals seems minor in comparison to that first, enormous decision.

Thus, I approached this conference the same way I always have, with this mindset and with my hopes high, and I met with two distinct schools of thought: what I’ll call the graduate student strand and the junior faculty strand (though not to generalize to everyone in either category). Like me, the graduate student strand embraced openness, diversity, rule-breaking, engagement, participation. Unlike me, many of the junior faculty I interacted with were very closed. For the first time, I had the distinct sense that information was a commodity to be protected for career purposes, for contract purposes, for reputation purposes.

Maybe the real oddity is that I’ve been lucky enough not to encounter this before. I come from a family of academics, so the concept is not new to me; I’ve heard the horror stories about jealous, backstabbing colleagues. In my master’s program, a rumor circulated about students in the year before me, where one stole the ideas voiced by another in workshop. There was some tension, I hear, but not bloodshed. I think the two reconciled, the one conceding that the other could do it better justice, and the thief crediting her inspiration at the end of the book.

Maybe it’s my MFA background and my familiarity with the workshop setting that allows me to be so relaxed about my intellectual property: this inculcated belief that craft trumps content, that all stories boil down to simple notions and relationships that have been done to death; thus, what ultimately matters is how you carry it out. Maybe this is what compels me to spend a day on a single sentence. Maybe this is why I find it so easy to talk about works in progress, because I trust that even if others borrow an idea, they’ll approach it differently, from different perspectives, with different tools, with different style. More than that, I believe that this is how knowledge is built, and that the helmsmen matter less than the ideas they collectively construct.

Granted, this is my personal, idealistic, perhaps naive belief. Regardless, it was jarring to be multiply confronted by scholars who–in presentation Q&As or one-on-one conversations–refused to entertain critiques, reveal the full extent of their unpublished research, or otherwise engage with scholars whom they seemed to deem beneath them. I mean this less as a scathing critique than as an expression of my own sadness at this experience. What I expected would be a fully welcoming conference was somehow divided between graduate students who advocated for open access and the free and open exchange of ideas, and junior faculty who seemed opposed to wholly embracing that ethic when it came to their own work-in-progress. This secrecy is perhaps aimed at protecting career prospects, preventing a younger scholar from getting the jump on you after years’ of slaving away at your research. I do know this feeling. I experience it every time someone publishes a memoir on Sri Lanka’s civil war. That doesn’t stop me, personally, from discussing the work.

To come full circle with my metaphor, body modification is a practice that externalizes an internal state or conviction. We literalize on our skin what we have endured and how we want to be approached because of it. I’m hardly embedded in the subculture but I’m tattooed, scarified, and pierced, and nearly all of it is visible. I was healing a new piece while at the conference, and as I was taking care to baby it I found myself noticing other conference participants’ elaborate tattoos and piercings. These were tenure-track hopefuls, Ph.D. students and candidates, and faculty members. They had visible color-ink sleeves and socks, stretched lobes, industrial piercings, labrets and lip rings, eyebrow CBRs, smaller pieces on the neck, nape, wrist, ankle, foot. This was steampunk, cyberpunk, and punk rock in the same room, shamelessly visible. There was a time when society scorned this in its professionals. In that room, there was no question of hiding these pieces. They were done to be seen, employment chances be damned. I’ve read somewhere that at least in the humanities a professor with that visible aesthetic is actually more likely to be hired, but the point is that here is the self made transparent on the skin, with no qualms about what potential employers might say. And it was depressingly striking to me that revealing one’s ink in a professional setting is more acceptable than revealing one’s work.

Ultimately, I left with a bitter taste in my mouth that I have yet to cleanse. I’ve generally treated conferences as ideal marketplaces for ideas. I generally come away inspired. I don’t know what this closedness says about the academy. For all we sanctify knowledge construction, if it is ultimately aimed at personal goals like a good reputation and career, it smacks of hypocrisy.

I’ve been away from blogging for a significant amount of time, but after mulling this over I think I have not posted enough. To be appropriately at peace with myself, I’ll be posting my drafts shortly. It is unfortunate that real change in the publish-or-perish dictum is more likely to happen through the actions of junior faculty, but I can at least choose the avenues of resistance that are available to me. Why pretend to others or myself that the institution of education is not corrupted, and that we are not complicit in its corruption, when the truth is there, subtly accusing us in the form of every other supposed taboo we choose to show off.

Creative Commons License
This work by V. Manivannan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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