academic


These days, life is about as dull as you can imagine: teaching at the university, helping kids with homework, buying groceries, being an administrator for my academic program, and other non-thrilling activities. Except for a moment now and then, I don’t reflect on my transsexual nature/history — there’s just not enough time to wallow (er… reflect) on it these days. Most days (and even many weeks), it’s just not a topic that I think about.

Which is not to say I’m in denial of how I got here. I know all about those rocky months and years and marvel that things have turned out so well. But the days of nervousness and rehearsing my voice and mannerisms so that I could have the confidence to make a public appearance — those days are gone. I feel strongly that my mind and body are aligned and have plenty of confidence in being myself in all circumstances, and that’s a wonderful and empowered feeling, let me tell you.

So I was truly unsettled today when the following exchange happened.

I walked across campus to a neighboring department to meet with a committee that wanted my help working on a new degree, and since I run a similar program and wrote the proposal to get it approved some years ago, I was a natural “consultant” for their situation. I met the professors and administrators from this other department (I had never met them before), and during the chit-chat before we got started, the dean said, “Mary Jo…. she’s in your department, isn’t she?”

“Yes,” I said, picturing my wife and beginning to wonder where she might have met this dean. “She is in the graduate program and teaches a lot of our graduate courses.”

“I thought so,” he said, “We met at a party and talked about her doctorate from Big State University, where I was teaching at the time. We never crossed paths up there, but I remember that she’s in your department specifically because of our connection at BSU.”

At this point, I’m vaguely remembering this guy from a party in the past, back when I was bearded, heavier, and, well, quite a bit different than I am today. But I figure this small talk will peter out and we’ll get started.

“And what about her husband?”

So much for petering out. “Beg pardon?”

“Her husband. He teaches in your department, doesn’t he? We met once.”

“Uh, I think it’s George.”

“Don’t you know? You work with him, right?” The room’s hot and I’m backed into a corner. I didn’t come to this meeting to discuss my transition. If only I had known this was going to be a topic, I wouldn’t have minded, could have been mentally prepared. But there’s no time. I panic and say, “Sure, of course. He’s fine.”

The dean satisfied, we then proceed with the 90-minute meeting.

Odd blasts from the past like these are disconcerting precisely because I’m no longer on my guard these days, and they take me by surprise.

I don’t think I’m ashamed of being who I am, or who I’m married to. But the fact of the matter is that I denied who I was today. I denied that George is me, that I’m married to Mary Jo, that this dean and I have met some time a few years ago. After the initial panic subsided, I had no trouble allowing him to think I was just someone else in the department, someone different than George, someone unrelated to Mary Jo.

As I left this meeting, walking across campus on this crisp winter day, I began feeling terribly cowardly. I could have said casually, “Oh, you’re thinking of me — I used to be George, but as you can see, things have changed, ha ha ha.” Or I could have said with a touch of sadness in my voice, “Oh, George. He’s no longer with us.” Or I could have pretended to be clueless and said, “I’m new here and don’t think I know Mary Jo’s husband,” which, given my program’s reputation for collegiality and teamwork, would have been absurd.

Neither clever nor fast, I simply denied myself, my existence, my relationship with Mary Jo.

Maybe all trans*people go though this after transition is over, but it was unsettling and I feel like a fraud. I suppose I could defend my actions and rationalize that this polite query was just as potentially personal and painful as asking someone about their divorced spouse, maybe not having heard the news, or asking how the research project was going after its funding had been pulled, maybe not having known the funding was pulled. I suppose there must be dozens of similarly-personal, and anxiety-producing, questions, and maybe this incident has nothing to do with being transsexual.

I’m not ashamed of who I am, what I do, and who I’m married to — in fact, I’m incredibly proud and happy about my existence and my relationships. But I’m also somewhat private and not inclined to make my personal life the topic of committee meetings. I guess I just don’t know what to do when such potentially-revealing questions come out of left field. Maybe I take this incident as one data point in a larger post-transition experiment (let’s call this choice “the public denial approach”), and if it happens again, I’ll try the “full and amusing disclosure” approach to see what happens.

In a meeting at Texas A&M on Wednesday evening it was determined to go forward with the first Transgender Nondiscrimination Summit on July 23, 2009 (Thursday) at the Texas A&M campus in College Station. This will be a full day summit meeting and is free to all attendees. Specifics will be announced within the next few weeks. We do have a need to locate a volunteer to create a website for this summit. It needs to be a simple website with summit information and a registration form. Texas A&M Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Resource Center will put a link on their official website to the Summit website link. Space is limited so register early; once we have the registration process in place (it will be announced). Here is our Mission Statement:

To invite interested parties at other universities to discuss what works and what does not work in getting the phrase “gender identity and expression” into their respective nondiscrimination statements. Also, discuss strategies on how to approach the inevitable barriers that always arise. This summit is not intended to be a protest, demonstration, or rally. We want to invite the other universities’ representatives to simply discuss strategic approaches towards social justice issues related to inclusion statements.

The only official reason I went to my field’s main conference in San Francisco last week was to present the best dissertation of the year award to a deserving doctoral student. My friend Sherry, the head of this organization, asked me to do this job, and I realize that she must have known that without an official duty, I would be tempted to lay low, to skip the conference in order to avoid making myself feel vulnerable. But with an official duty, I had no choice but to chair the committee, put my new name on the program, and (most importantly) stand up in front of a ballroom filled with my colleagues and present the award.

After I wrote the initial award notes, which had to fit within 2 minutes, I worked with my voice team back home in order to tighten the wording to allow me to go slower than my George voice, and I practiced over and over, not because I thought I’d mis-read anything, but because I wanted my voice to match my new body and new look.

The awards ceremony arrived on Friday afternoon, which gave me a couple of days of attending sessions and meeting old friends. The ballroom was pretty full, probably 200 attendees, and I sat in the front row of the audience with the other presenters and recipients, all of us facing the raised dais and podium at the front of the big room. As the ceremony began, I tried to listen to the words of others, and got most of what they said, but I kept picturing myself falling down as I walked the 5o feet from my chair up the steps to the podium, alone, the whole ballroom waiting and watching. I imagined my hair getting caught on something and flying off. I imagined my voice breaking or someone yelling from the back, “Is that a guy in a dress?” followed by widespread laughter.

I recognized these fears as those formless anxieties we all get, and I allowed them to be played out and then banished from my brain.

They called me. I walked. I did not trip going up the stairs. I looked around the room. I laid out my notes deliberately, pausing a second so that I could get my bearings. I read slowly and with emotion, looking up and catching eye contact from different parts of the room. I don’t think I blundered. When I called my recipient up to get the award, I finally lost myself in the moment, and my self-consciousness faded and I just stood there smiling as I listened to his words. It wasn’t about me, although I had been worried it would be about me — it was about him and about his dissertation and about our academic field, and when my self-consciousness and my fears were vanquished, that was what allowed it to be about those things. I didn’t even think about falling or wig-exploding or name-calling as we walked down the stairs and took our seats.

In fact, after this moment, a lot of my concerns about embodying Joyce evaporated. I had faced a large professional hurdle and had passed the test. I met new people at the reception, chatted with old friends, and felt as if it was probably going to be possible for me to continue being a professor in this field.

I just returned from my discipline’s big academic conference in San Francisco, and with the exception of my local students and faculty, no one had seen me or “met” the new me, even though they knew of my existence. So in a lot of ways, this large conference was a second coming out, one that involved embodiment and being, and one that paralleled last year’s conference.

You may recall that last April, I visited New Orleans to attend my field’s annual academic conference, and picked that moment to tell all my old professors, graduate student buddies, and other colleagues around the country about my impending transition. Last March and April were times of widespread disclosures about the facts of my situation and were designed to alert everyone as to what was about to happen. These comings out involved revealing knowledge to others, but I was still George (or sort of still George). When people found out, there were usually a few moments of disbelief or shock or looking around for a secret camera, followed by a slow recognition that this was a real thing that was happening, and that they were being asked to comprehend and process something very new and surprising.

In the months after last spring, I not only revealed the information about Joyce to others, but I became Joyce physically, living and embodying that knowledge, and slowly, through summer meetings, and get togethers with friends, faculty retreats, and student advising, I slowly became Joyce and the knowledge that people had of my transition became the being of my transition.

At this year’s conference, I realized that until I revealed my name tag or said my name (i.e. Hi, I’m Joyce, used to be George), I could travel incognito around the conference, around some of my oldest and dearest friends. While that surprised me initially, I realize that there is a big, big difference in knowing the facts of something and experiencing them in the flesh. In fact, I’m pretty sure that even after chatting with an old friend, my “true” identity didn’t sink in until much later.

As such, I began to see these two conferences, a year apart, as defining two kinds of coming out, one epistemological (dealing with knowledge) and the other ontological (dealing with being). I know they are two different kinds of coming out because as I met colleagues who “knew” the facts of George’s transition into Joyce, there was still this shock of recognition when they put 2 and 2 together upon meeting, studying my name badge and realizing just who they were seeing. Just like last year, this year’s meetings involved fluttering eyes, brain obviously crackling with contradictory information, stammering, and finally, after a brain reboot, a gracious and cordial “how to you do?”

What’s this like? I had been so comfortable being Joyce for almost a year that having to meet all these new people was a bit startling to me. But remembering the difficulties of my local colleagues and my sister and my family a year ago, I realized that this second sort of coming out is very important for people who used to know me. Mentally, it must be difficult to have George tell you he’s changing sex and to replace his images in your mind’s eye with something different. The knowledge of this impending event doesn’t displace all the memory holders in your brain, doesn’t provide you with any scaffolding upon which to build a new mental model of Joyce. Sure, the facts do provide you with critical information, but it’s information that exists in a void, in unembodied space. It’s like reading about what to expect when you visit Athens and not really “getting it” until you’ve actually been in the city for a couple of days.

“Nice to meet you,” said my colleague at a reception a few weeks ago. “I don’t believe I know you,” she continued with warm smile and outstretched hand. “Hi, Nancy Lee,” I said, using her name and playing along with what I thought was a friendly joke, “I’m Joyce, and yes, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Still straightfaced, she looked at me and asked, “What department are you with, Joyce?”

“Your department — I’ve been your colleague for 10 years and I’m the head of the graduate program, as you know.”

A lightbulb began to burn, turned on by the dimmer switch inside her brain, as she began to realize who I was and the facial expression turned from eagerness to shock and embarrassment. “Oh…. well…. nice to see you here,” she mumbled and, turning on her heel, walked away to greet someone else.

If it weren’t for several obvious facts, I would empathize with her. If this were her first time encountering Joyce, long after my disclosure letter in the spring and the farewell to George, followed by a long summer of absence, I would be the one turning red with shame — it has never been my goal to shock anyone with my transsexual transition.

If it weren’t for the facts that

  • we had served on a committee together that met at least 3 times over the summer
  • we spoke at the faculty retreat and I gave a report to the rest of the faculty
  • we have attended at least 1 faculty meeting together this fall

….. if it weren’t for these facts, I might make sense of the episode by arguing that she had been ambushed by a transsexual and was so shocked that she didn’t know what to do. However, these facts, it seems to me, turn the tables on my colleague and reveal what must be the truth — that she didn’t realize what Joyce looked like because she hasn’t looked at me during all these events. I either do not merit her attention or I’m too monstrous to view (like the Gorgon who can turn you to stone if you look at her).

I personally like the latter image, the tranny as powerful Medusa who can capture your attention and freeze you in your tracks, her power a combination of the viewer’s terror and insatiable curiosity. No one wants to look, but they have to — maybe not in direct-eye-contact confrontations, but rather in furtive glances captured across a meeting room or around the corner or over someone else’s shoulder. It’s the classical mythology equivalent of looking at a car wreck on the highway as you drive by.

I was incognito, not as some deliberate spy-novel scheme involving disguises and fake accents, but as myself, and the paradox is that the label “incognito” isn’t anything I applied to myself, but is a product of Nancy Lee’s averted gaze. For months, she was clearly able to avoid looking at me, and thus was able to avoid the stony fate that awaited her. Her plan backfired at this reception, when she sized me up from across the room, made direct eye contact, walked purposefully across the room, and sought an introduction and, in one fell swoop, the label “incognito” erased in a puff of semantic smoke at the same time she felt her muscles begin to turn to stone.

When Diane Schroer won her court case against the Library of Congress based on sex discrimination, it seemed to me that this was a perfect bit of logic to help solve the argument about the wage gap between men and women. Arguments about wage discrimination in the past have had to argue by an analogy: that a hypothetical man and a hypothetical woman, identically suited for the same hypothetical job, should receive equal preference, treatment, and salary. And it makes perfect sense.

However, argument-by-analogy always leaves open the stark fact that we don’t live in a hypothetical world and there are never identical people vying for jobs. There is always a bit of difference, and that difference is the loophole through which sex discrimination occurs.

But what if you didn’t have to argue by analogy? What if one minute, you had a man who was perfectly suited for a job, praised by all his references and drooled over by his employer, and then the next minute, after he explained he was transitioning into a woman because he is a transsexual, she was no longer perfectly suited for the job and was either fired or the job offer was withdrawn? That was precisely what happened to David Schroer, and 10 minutes later, Diane Schroer, in seeking employment at the Library of Congress.

I have talked to friends about this as a solution to not only transgender discrimination, but also plain old sex discrimination, and I am happily surprised to learn of an academic study in economics that takes this exact methodology. Kristen Schilt and Matthew Wiswall report in “Before and After: Gender Transitions, Human Capital, and Workplace Experiences,” from the The Berkeley Electronic Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy, that “average earnings for female-to-male transgender workers increase slightly following their gender transitions, while average earnings for male-to-female transgender workers fall by nearly 1/3.”

Please take a minute to read their abstract and also the Time article, “If Women Were More Like Men: Why Females Earn Less,” which reports on their academic study.

My partner, Mary Jo, has commented frequently that studying transsexuals represents an extremely clever approach to exploring sex-difference research problems like wages, cognition, and performance. She argues that researchers ought to work with their human subject review boards to ethically take advantage of the opportunity to study sex differences that transsexuals make literal by their experiences.

Twitter is a service that accepts, stores, and broadcasts very small messages, 140 characters, a number that probably comes from text-messaging constraints. Twitter messages are called tweets, and they can be piped into one’s Facebook status updates, blog posts, and a variety of other social networking forums.

When you write your tweet, you don’t start your update with “I” or “Joyce” because one’s name is always part of the service, as in this tweet, which was written “turns on electric….”

Joyce turns on electric wire on our back fence, as horses were moved to that pasture, and grass is always greener…easy way to destroy a fence

Tweeters don’t like to use “is” as the first word of the tweet because it’s so wasteful and so undescriptive. I prefer to us some kind of active verb (tense unimportant) to get the ball rolling, then finish up the tweet with appositives, phrases, or clauses until I get very close to 140 characters. Ending punctuation is not necessary, as Facebook adds it (Twitter does not) — I don’t use it unless I need a question mark or exclamation point. Literate twitters don’t like to spell “you” as “U,” or “later” as “L8R,” but there is a certain efficiency that comes from fast typing on little keyboards in a tight context that makes such shortcuts appealing. It is a question of style mostly, until the shortcuts become so cryptic as to interfere with one’s ability to interpret the message. I don’t see how you can advocate changing “colour” to “color,” or “dialogue” to “dialog,” or “eight” to “8,” but then suddenly become all traditionalist by deciding that a certain shorthand is no longer in the spirit of language and wordsmiths of all abilities and socio-economical-educational backgrounds. I myself prefer to write in conventional English words, probably because I am a professor and these postmodern shorthands feel too casual for my persona (besides, I’m hopelessly indoctrinated, and could no more type “L8R” for “later” than I could avoid typing two spaces after my period, a rule beaten into me by Mrs. Hite, my high school typing teacher).

If, after writing my tweet, I realize I’m 10 characters too long (and text messages and Twitter let you know precisely how many characters you’ve typed), I revise, looking for ways of tightening without losing my meaning. This morning, I wrote a phrase that started like this “,after seeing the horses,” but realized that “after” was probably unnecessary, and deleted it, leaving me with a present participle, which is perfectly adequate to illustrate action, even though the preposition “after” does establish a timeline.

Rhetoric works at the intersection of audience, purpose, and context, so I think it’s reasonable to examine tweets from these perspectives. Audience is relatively easy — friends and followers (and, perhaps a bit frightening, stalkers, so you need to be careful who you allow to see your tweets) who find what you’re doing somewhat interesting. Purpose is harder, and this is where my academic friends get stuck on Twitter updates, asking “Why on earth would anyone want to know that I’m going shopping right now, or if I’m cooking hamburger helper?”

Fair questions, and they speak to purpose. On the sender’s side, the purpose of tweets is multiple: to express a feeling, to inform others of a situation you find yourself in, to respond to other tweets in a TwitterDialog. If we look at a triangle of rhetorical aims (such as theorized by James Kinneavy), I think tweets work out pretty nicely for Expressive, Informative, Poetic, and perhaps Persuasive aims of discourse. I’m not sure about persuasive tweets, at least insofar as we’re talking about fully developed arguments, but I don’t have any problem seeing individual tweets as particles of arguments, comprising claims, rebuttals, bits of evidence, critical questions, and so on.

On the receiver’s end, what is the purpose of reading the tweet updates of your friends? In some cases, the tweets inform you of something (party, poetry reading, political event) that you didn’t know about, and acts like a semaphor or smoke signal or loudspeaker message: short and to the point. (One if by land and two if by sea, and that sort of thing.) But what do you do with an expressive tweet, one that says something like “Joyce feels like a sunshine daydream”? I think you do with it the same thing you do with any expression, whether a happy shout of children on the playground or a sob of grief over the death of a grandparent or a poem about feeling alienated: you relate to it, empathize with it, critique it, ignore it.

It has been argued that Web2.0 technologies that enable social networking act almost like a living creature and that the synapses and cells and processes of that living thing are the tweets and cellphone pictures and blog entries. If so, then in addition to a primary purpose of tweets (i.e. inform, delight, persuade, and so on), there must be a secondary purpose: to nurture the life processes that characterize social networking. It doesn’t really matter if I tweet that I’m about to go shopping or that my lawnmower is broken, but it does matter if everyone quits networking, and thus my individual tweets contribute to the bigger creature, just as an individual bee’s deeds don’t matter except in the totality of the hive.

Is the purpose of twittering, then, to pulse one voice into the din of the network? Is that the only purpose? Is that voice supposed to mirror the community’s values, or can it contribute to the diversity of opinion and expression and thus make the community stronger? If social networking (and twittering is part of that process) is a big discourse, then I think it must be good — as long as you’re twittering as a participant in the larger discourse, you aren’t hitting someone over the head with a hammer, and all modern theorists of social argumentation agree (and it’s fairly amazing they agree on anything, from concepts of rationality and reason to what “common ground” means) that for societies that wish to avoid totalitarianism and the force that accompanies totalitarianism, keeping the discussion going is paramount. I don’t know if twittering rises to the level of communicative action a la Habermas, but it does contribute to the dialog-multiplied-a-million-fold, or the polylog/multilog/panalog.

Context is related to purpose, as tweets are composed on computers, cell phones, and mobile devices of all sorts, and they are also read and responded to in highly distributed ways. Tweets are everywhere, always on the move, little flashes of activity in an enormous field of human activity. If tweets are individual squawks from airplanes, then you can see the aggregate twitters (multiple tweets from the same airplane multiplied by all the airplanes in the air multiplied by a time-sequence showing aggregate activity, as you can get on FlightAware (static or movie or separate air carrier).

Do the constraints (140 characters) of Twittering mean that it is insuffient as a communication medium? I don’t think so — all media and all situations are constrained in some way. Physical production is constrained by material and economic and practical issues like ink, weight, shipping, and so on. Electronic production, along with all other sorts of production, are constrained by the amount of time a person or a team of designers have to give to a project, by the bandwidth speeds and processor speeds and the limits of screen or audio resolution. And even if we had world enough and time to produce messages (which we don’t), then the limits of our readers’ attention would constrain our messages, a point Richard Lanham has made in The Economics of Attention.

Twittering, then, is a valid form of communication that may provide writers a means of arriving at all the aims of rhetoric, may provide readers food for thought or timely information, and may act as a Habermasian social glue that promotes pluralism and dialog. I’m not saying Twitter must achieve these things because the tools/techniques of communication (whether tweets, novels, or movies) are also free to generate rubbish and dogma. In other words, the actions of the communicators imbue the tools and techniques with their ends, and speaking as a rhetor, that’s the way it should be.

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