The academic body

The disciplinary shift I made post-PhD from corporeal feminism to higher education has made me aware of the embodied practices of teaching and presenting in front of others. I was reminded of this when I read Roxane Gay’s Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body over the weekend.

Image result for roxane gay hunger

The good thing about school is that students have been trained, from an early age, to follow the rules. They come to class and generally sit and behave in an orderly fashion. When you tell them to do things, they do those things. I walked into my first classroom, my heart pounding, sweating everywhere, my head ringing with all of my fears and insecurities … When I stood at the front of the classroom, they hushed, and realized I was the teacher. I took attendance, my legs rubbery with anxiety, and then went into discussing the syllabus, the nature of the class and what would be expected of them … When I was done discussing the syllabus, I actually had to teach and my anxiety rushed right back through me. At the end of that first class, as the students filed out of the room, I wanted to collapse with relief because I had survived those fifty minutes of being fat in front of twenty-two eighteen-and nineteen-year-olds.

I vividly remember teaching my first tutorial at university seventeen years ago. One of the first things a (mature-age male) student said to me was “I don’t want to be taught by a chick”. I suggested he request another class, but he decided to “hang around” for the semester and test my knowledge of theories of postmodern subjectivity.

In a guest blog post on Conference Inference last week, the wonderful Barbara Grant wrote of her experiences of anxiety at conferences:

I suffered the most disabling and shaming attacks of panic before giving my papers. To this day I don’t know how I made it through the presentations … I am an intensely self-conscious person, so I have experienced excruciating times hovering on the edges of that animated crowd … Mercifully age has softened that feeling: whatever drove the acute self-consciousness of my adult life from adolescence onwards has waned considerably. Maybe it’s the invisibility that comes with being an older woman; maybe it’s something about not caring about such matters any more. (It’s true what they say – you don’t!) But maybe, too, it’s an effect of becoming more senior and more recognised as an academic.

I was reminded of how I worried about my appearance as a young tutor. How laughable this seems now, when a greater concern should have been the substance of my presentations. I was mercifully unaware of how little I knew. I now worry less over how I look, and more over what I say. It’s true that age softens self- consciousness. (I like this post from Nicole Avery on things her 40 year old self would tell her 30 year old self: let go of busyness, it’s ok to fail, use your good things, meditate, read, move). I am comfortable in my skin at 40 in a way I could not have envisaged in my teens and 20s (although I do imagine that the past me would look at the present me and wonder why I look so tired).

One of the most thought-provoking essays I have read on this topic (although it seems dated now) is Jane Gallop’s (1994) The Teacher’s Breasts on feminist pedagogy. It’s impossible find a neat paragraph that encapsulates the piece, but Cynthia Franklin’s (2010) Academic Lives includes this anecdote:

In 1992 prominent feminist theorist Jane Gallop was charged by two of her women students with sexual harassment. A highly publicized case that her students lost … Shortly after … Gallop cam to UC Berkeley, where I was a graduate student at the time, to give a talk on Derrida’s Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles. True to form, Gallop appeared for this talk in full cowgirl regalia—red cowgirl hat and frilly red cowgirl shirt, red leather boots, and spurs. At the podium before a room packed with humanities faculty and graduate students, Gallop pulled her text from her briefcase and blushed furiously, explaining that she had brought the wrong talk. Instead of the Spurs talk she had in hand “The Teacher’s Breasts”, an essay exploring teacher-student erotics, which she then indeed read.

There is a lot in this post that I have not commented on: fat and sexual harassment, for example. I will leave this discussion for a future post, but this is some of my recent reading: James Burford’s article Dear obese PhD applicants and this review of Unwanted Advances (I am undecided whether to read the book). I will be presenting at a conference this week, and although I won’t be wearing spurs, I’ll be hoping to capture some of the fun of Gallop’s style, and the way in which she puts her body on the line.


2 thoughts on “The academic body

  1. Thanks Agnes, another great provocative evocative post.
    I am about to do the first formal conference presentation in quite a while – am excited and nervous – so appreciated the links in this post. I have also sent the “busy mum” link to wonderful academic colleagues with youngsters.


    • Thanks Ann – best of luck for your conference presentation. I made a rookie mistake and rushed through mine this week, so I would remind you to take a deep breath and slow down. Wish I could go back in time and say that to myself!


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