The Public Scholar’s Two Bodies
by Kathleen Fitzpatrick — Modern Language Association
December 27, 2011 – 13:08
I started this blog as an assistant professor, under conditions that were never fully pseudonymous but were perhaps semi-veiled, at least by the fact that very few people knew me, and even fewer of those who did knew anything about blogs. All of my colleagues, that is to say, were looking in the other direction, and so I was able to say more or less what I wanted. Only gradually did this odd collection of writings and reflections come to be associated with a professionally known me.
Even after that, it seemed perfectly reasonable for the persona I inhabited on the blog to be a bit personal, to think through problems I was actually facing, to be at times a bit worried and not entirely secure. I was, after all, an assistant professor, in an online community composed primarily of other assistant professors, and thinking in public through the anxieties associated with that role was part of the point — we were using the blog format to demonstrate to one another that however isolated we may have felt, we were not alone.
Nearly ten years have gone by, however, and I’ve not only been tenured and promoted (twice!) but I’ve moved into a new position, one that calls on me to take on a new kind of leadership role. And those changes now have me reassessing the kinds of writing that I can — that I should — be doing in a space like this one. A post like yesterday’s, exploring some concern that I’ve got about my relationship to my work, can leave me feeling overexposed today in ways that it never would have eight years ago. Or even five years ago: even after I was tenured I felt that it was important to model a way of being an scholar that didn’t hide the messy process of working out ideas behind the polished completeness they eventually take on, that didn’t disavow the insecurities and anxieties of academic life in favor of a self-doubt-free public persona.
But in my new role, I’m increasingly aware that there are two Kathleen Fitzpatricks in the world: on the one hand, one that’s taken on a form of public service, that represents a large and important organization, that has a mission focused on something bigger than myself, and on the other, one that’s… just me. It’s something a bit more than the usual public/private divide; it’s a split between a self that speaks with a voice that’s larger than itself, and a self that seems always too small, too local, ever to be spoken for publicly.
And so while I still find myself wanting to push back against what I’ve always found to be a pretty gendered mode of being an academic — always projecting confidence, being convinced of one’s rightness, putting forward arguments that are never anything other than unimpeachable — and instead model a kind of self-questioning that I am convinced is necessary for real intellectual and personal growth, I now increasingly wonder whether I can or should continue do so as myself. There are questions to be asked about that mode of writing in and of itself, of course — is it possible to take on a project of open self-questioning without falling into an equally gendered mode of self-doubt and insecurity? — but there are also pressing concerns to be raised about whether the kinds of introspection the blog has long inspired in me can co-exist at all with the public role I have now chosen to occupy.
This wouldn’t be the first time I’ve announced an attempt to reconcile the blog with this public persona, and that I haven’t managed to do so yet bespeaks the difficulty of the project. But — in a stroke of what’s either meaningful irony or mere coincidence — I’m actually writing right now, for a public venue, about the importance of taking the work that gets done on scholarly blogs seriously. And that juncture, or disjuncture, depending on your view of it, has me thinking about the changing function of the public platform at the various stages of a career, the ways in which we all produce different voices at different moments, and the degree to which a coherent self can ever speak, or be spoken.