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.
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.
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:
- Here's a LiveJournal group called Academic Ink, with membership restricted to academics with tattoos.
- Here's a Ning page for tattooed academics.
- Here's the MySpace page for Matt Volatile, a young academic who explains that he is "researching for a PhD in the Department of Art History researching the visual and ontological consequences of invasive corporeal modification."
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.