Saturday, November 14, 2009

tattooed academics signal the decline of western civilization!

file under: time for the old guard to die out

I am alarmed by the elitism exhibited in a recent Chronicle of Higher Ed piece on scholars, tattoos, and piercings. The article, "The Candidate and His Earring" by Dennis M. Barden, frets over the future of academia--not because of a decline in access to or quality of post-graduate education, but because kids these days are getting their ears pierced.

Barden tells the story of a presidential search in which he participated. He writes:

I had interviewed a terrific candidate via videoconference and touted him to the search committee—successfully, as it turned out, because they agreed to interview him in person. That conversation went exceptionally well. The candidate truly was outstanding in comportment and credentials, and he was recognized as such by the search committee.

I, on the other hand, was taken aback. The institution I was serving had a reputation for being a fairly conservative place—Midwestern, faith-based, dedicated to its traditions. As soon as the candidate left the room, I stood to address the search committee with what might only be described as a frightening combination of bemusement and real concern. "I want you all to know that on video I could not see the earring!" Happily, the room erupted in laughter. My candidate had the tiniest little diamond stud in his ear. I truly hadn't noticed it at all until he sat down next to me; some committee members at the other end of the table couldn't even see it. It was there, though, and it was discussed.

The candidate was hired, Barden tells us, and "the earring is no longer an issue now that my onetime candidate is well ensconced in that presidency."

What's alarming about this story is that the earring was ever an issue in the first place. Barden also frets over tattoos (far more damaging, he suggests, to one's career than the less 'permanent' earring) and The Decline of Proper English as evidenced by young people's fluency with text messaging language and slang. "Never before," Barden writes,
have we been so bombarded by images and sounds, so instant, so clear, so pervasive, so permanent. People can change their words, but some of their personal expressions are there forever. Tattoos are only one example; pictures on social-networking sites are even more pernicious, potentially.

Twenty years from now, will search committees be deciding how seriously to take that picture from the '10s with the then-underage presidential candidate brandishing a joint and displaying his posterior to the admiring throng? Or will there be so much of that out there that it is just expected? And how will that presidential candidate be conducting himself on the day that decision is made? Will he be speaking anything that we recognize today as standard English?

Barden is not, thank god, an academic. His online profile explains that he spent 20 years in academic administration before joining Witt/Kieffer, "an executive-search firm that specializes in searches for academic and administrative leaders in academe, health care, and nonprofit organizations." While he cannot be forgiven for this outdated and prejudiced take on the role of personal appearance on academic hiring decisions, he can be largely dismissed.

And that's exactly what anybody who cares about gathering up the best scholarly minds in any field should do. The notion that "respectable" academics should be free of adornments like tattoos and excess piercings (presumably he thinks ear piercings for women is just fine, though he worries when his daughter pierces her nose) is an outdated relic of the days when intellectual prowess was assumed to be the exclusive province of the middle and upper class.

We can look at the cultural history of tattoos as one nice example. Because of tattoos' association with tribal rites, Christianity had to smoosh down tattooing practices along with pagan religious practices in order to complete their conquest of non-Christian peoples. When tattoos made their comeback in America, they were filtered 'up' through working class or minority groups. Tattoos, associated with convicts, bikers, and gang members, were increasingly embraced by middle and upper class adolescents and young adults as forms of rebellion against the values of their home communities. Increasingly, tattoos, piercings, and other forms of body adornment have been accepted as legitimate forms of personal expression.

But a significant subset of the population continues to adhere to the notion that the increasing popularity of tattoos and piercings signal the Decline of Civilization As We Know It. They're quick to link tattoos to broken English--evidenced in Barden's concern that in future decades candidates may speak in something we no longer recognize as "standard English."

A couple-three things about this attitude:

1. The anti-body adornment stance is an attempt at gatekeeping. Academia has historically been very good at ensuring its survival as an institution populated by richwhiteguys and scholars who embrace the richwhiteguy ethos. Rejecting a qualified candidate because her appearance sets her apart from this ethos is loathsome at best and, at worst, a direct violation of anti-discrimination policies.

2. Lots of powerful academics have tattoos and / or piercings. At least two male faculty members in my program (Learning Sciences @ Indiana University) bear the mark of a formerly pierced ear, and here's Sasha Barab, who comes complete with no less than two pierced ears:

At least one of these guys also has a tattoo. Also:

Need I go on? Because I could. But instead, I guess I'll move on to point 3:

3. I'm getting a tattoo. On my wrist. Where Barden and the entire world--including faculty hiring committees--will be able to see it. I decided on the tattoo, and the location, months ago, and now I'm just working on gathering up the money and the courage to get it done. And here's the thing: Any school that would reject me based on body adornment is a school I wouldn't want to affiliate myself with anyway.

Besides, with any luck, the Dennis Bardens of the world are on their way out of positions of authority. It's time we replaced them with people who can see clearly the underlying power structures whose existence depends on making value judgments based on physical appearance, and whose power relies on excluding people who might challenge the very existence of those underlying structures.


Charlene said...

I have piercings and tattoos. I am working on the art for a sleeve with a designer here at work. I hope by the time I am graduated, it is finished. I would not want to interview with an incomplete sleeve. =)

A place that is valuing my looks, let it be my weight, gender features, or body art over my work is not a place I could be. I would constantly wonder what else is under scrutiny.

Jenna McWilliams said...

Good points all. Do you think Barden's view is outdated, or do you think you'll run into others out there who agree with his stance?

Anonymous said...

I did not read the article because I had a stressful week and figured it would raise my blood pressure. In 1983, when I was on a study abroad program in Oxford, I got a small rose tattoo on my left shoulder (which was pretty much safely under my clothing since I rarely wear very low/scoop necklines). A few years ago, to celebrate turning fifty, making full professor, paying off student loans (humanities!), and paying off truck, I got major tattoo(s); On my right shoulder, my fan pseudonym, in Elvish (Tolkien's Beleriand Dialect), and on the left side, I had my Oxford rose redone--it had faded in the decades since--and an originally designed rose vine growing out from that rose up and around my shoulder and curling down my arm--and have been making clothing and jewelery choices to complement the art ever since. I'll probably get another rose vine when I can afford it (the work took about 6 hours).

I am happy to see more of the younger academics at conferences with tattoos, piercings, and some NON-academic clothing--how much one might display on a job interview depends, I think, on the university culture. I think that Barden reflects a lot of straight white men of his generation--but I figure that those men didn't require tattoos or piercings to discriminate against anybody they perceived as "Other." And I'm not the only senior type person I know with tattoos and various piercings--I'm 54--I just suspect people are showing them more nowadays.

Anonymous said...

Since I have no idea how to upload image over here, I'm linking to entries with my icons of my tats.

Jenna McWilliams said...

Every time I read a comment from you, I emerge with just a little more hope, a little more energy. Thanks.

Mike said...

then i am screwed! I would be interested to know if i would've been accepted into the program had i come to the recruitment weekend in short sleeves? I would hope so, only because the people i work with rule and don't care. But i have run into those in academics that do care.

I'm also smart enough to know when to show them and when not too. I figure, get the job, then unleash them!

I think Barden's view is that of covering his ass since he works for a company that searchers for people and either he has an outdated view of what academia thinks of these body 'modifications' or his own view is outdated. Probably both. My mom still gives me crap for having tattoos and I keep saying..."but mom, i'm getting a Ph.D.". She has not response to that.

Jeffrey Kaplan said...

I have a tattoo on my shoulder and up until last year I had 5 piercings. I never had any issue with the faculty I worked with. They liked that I was able to be a guy with piercings and tattoos and keep up good grades, and participate in class, write thoughtfully, blah blah blah all the stuff that makes you a good student. I never had an issue.

When I was at Yeshiva on the other hand, or living with families in Jerusalem...that's another story. I had a little girl trying to pull out my eyebrow ring and a little boy incessantly laughing at me. When I visted other yeshivas, the bucherim would stare and point at me. That apprehension was quelled once I would share a divar torah or participate in classes.

These modifications have stigma to them because like you said they're associated with convicts, bikers, and gang members. Ironically, that is the inspiration for mine. Thus far, I have yet to meet anyone, be they academic, religious, or in power, that can't be turned into looking past modifications. And if Barden can't look past them, then he can't see the inside of people and see what they are really worth. I call these people shmucks.

opoudjis said...

"Besides, with any luck, the Dennis Bardens of the world are on their way out of positions of authority. It's time we replaced them with people who can see clearly the underlying power structures whose existence depends on making value judgments based on physical appearance, and whose power relies on excluding people who might challenge the very existence of those underlying structures."

My best regards to Utopia.

On this planet, meanwhile, "gathering up the best scholarly minds in any field" is a social undertaking, and societies have norms, to facilitate productive interaction between the members of the society. Norms are mutable, but they're not nonexistent (as you demonstrate yourself: "Any school that would reject me based on body adornment is a school I wouldn't want to affiliate myself with anyway").

When the tattoo had the semiotic of "rebellion against the values of their home communities", the gatekeepers heard the message loud and clear, and blocked entry as self-preservation. Do you really think there is an academic institution that will not block entry over any external appearance of the applicant? Turning up naked? Turning up without showering for three months? Turning up with a Klan hood?

Strawman? No. There's a continuum of social norms, and it changes in time and place. You happen to be along a different part of the continuum than Barden. From someone in the social sciences, I'd expect a little more humility about the contingency and transitoriness of those divisions.

You gatekeep too. You're in a university, not a disembodied brain in the Matrix.

Jenna McWilliams said...

opoudjis--perhaps more humility IS in order. But then, on the other hand, there comes a point in the 'cultural relativism' conversation where the argument runs out. Rejecting an applicant from academia for wearing a Klan hood is not the same as rejecting someone for having an 'extra' piercing, and I reject any argument that presumes otherwise.

It's all relative, right? Except that as human beings, as human becomings, it's our job to move our culture toward a more ethical, a more kind and welcoming, a more inclusive place in all cultural respects. Before I entered academia, it was my job to do this within the domains in which I operated; and now, as a young academic, it's my job to continue that work here.

Humility? No, not if by 'humility,' you mean 'treating norms as absolutely relative.' Not if you mean 'taking an objectivist approach to culture.' On one point we agree: that there will always be gatekeeping, and that I participate in that gatekeeping too. I take this fact quite seriously. Given the role I play in helping culture along, then, there is no time for humility.

Anonymous said...

Time to get over the taboo of body ornaments. piercing, tattoos, or otherwise.
Hopefully,we are in the process of shedding the conformity of the "normal" as imposed by the current zeitgeist of society.
Kudos to all of those that show a level of individuality.

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