The right definition.

January 20, 2014

Pat Thomson and Inger Mewburn’s essay, “Why do Academics Blog?” offers the following definition of a “para-academic:”

“professional and managerial roles offered inside universities today, which often involve some kind of research or teaching.”

Dictionary.com offers the following explanation of the prefix, “para,” in this context:

productive in the naming of occupational roles considered ancillary or subsidiary to roles requiring more training, or of a higher status, on such models as paramedical, and paraprofessional:, paralegal; paralibrarian; parapolice.

Upon reading Thompson and Mewburn’s piece in The Guardian Higher Ed Network, I posted it to Facebook with the gleeful adoption of the “para-academic” label.  The master of the residential college where I serve as a fellow and where I recently taught a seminar protested that the label diminished the nature of my campus contributions.  Indeed, if I accept the first definition of “para,” the terms renders me a low-status “subsidiary” to tenured academics like the master.

However, the second meaning of the prefix, “para” is:

“a combining form meaning “guard against,” occurring in loanwords from French, or, via French, from Italian: parachute; parasol.”

I choose this second meaning, the one that feeds into the definition of a paratrooper:

“a member of a military infantry unit trained to attack or land in combat areas by parachuting from airplanes.”

I imagine those of us at the University of Venus donning camouflage, parachuting down into the back corners of campus quads, and skulking the perimeter, as we prepare to take the academy by storm.  With this image in my head, I feel empowered.

A local politician once told me he liked to talk to me, because while I looked and behaved like the other (at that stage of my life) mini-van-driving, at-home moms in my prosperous neighborhood, I didn’t think like them.  In short, I wore my camouflage well.  It allowed me to pass unnoticed through PTA meetings and report back on how best to tackle the me (or my kid)-first mentality that perverts attempts at social justice.

Back to campus.  Tweeds serve better than fatigues as campus camouflage.  Fluency in the language of distribution requirements and candidacy exams permit Ph.D.s to pass among those on the steady march towards tenure then translate academic hieroglyphics to the outside world.  We hold to power to critique from a position of knowledge without succumbing to the seductions and corruptions of tenure.  Blogging, Thompson and Mewburn write, may not offer the best medium with which to reach the elusive public, but venues such as this offer a global common room in which to strategize, commiserate, and celebrate as we seek to reform academic life.

In October, I had the pleasure of dining with Rosalie Arcala Hall; it was the first and only time I have met one of my fellow Venusians face to face.  Yet, I feel bonded to them through our global common room.  The pleasure of attending Rosalie’s seminar and chatting about our personal and professional meanderings over a meal demonstrated the potential for real meaning forged in virtual space.  When a commentator oversteps the line on UVenus, we rally round.  When Sydni Dunn at Chronicle Vitae named Lee Skallerup Bissette and Liana Silva-Ford as people to watch at the MLA, we celebrated en masse in cyberspace.  When I discovered that Lee had faced attack on Twitter for remarks about her MLA session, I prepared to unfurl my parachute and hasten to her defense.  

The potential power of being a para-academic comes from the dual status.  Lee and Rosalie are among the full-time teaching faculty that Thompson and Mewburn consider proper academics (tenure-line or no).  I am one of those para-academic advisers and administrators who does a bit of teaching and research.  If no one hires me to teach in a given year, I still hold my salaried job with benefits.  If no one cares to publish my research, I will not perish.  

I have written about the downside of the realization that no one cares about my scholarship here and elsewhere, but the para-academic label made me contemplate the benefits to my para-ness.  Freedom from contract renewals and tenure reviews offers compensation for the loss of my freedom to research and write.  The ability to live where I wish liberates me physically in the way tenure promises to liberate intellectually.  

Paramilitary forces instill fear, because their “subsidiary” status goes hand in hand with their ability to “guard against” attack.  Lack of state support and organizational structure frees them to move among civilians unrecognized.  The growth of para-academics ought give pause to those entrenched in nineteenth-century assumptions about universities.  

You don’t see us, but we see you.


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Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe

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