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I just turned forty and began worrying about catching a terrible disease from my students.

A good friend once clued me in to a self-image disease suffered by many college professors. Let’s call it the Cool Envy Disease. Every day, he said, we are surrounded by people who are impossibly cool. These people dress well. They are super fit and look great in skinny jeans and miniskirts. They know all the good bands. They are politically progressive. And they can text with one hand, under a desk, without looking.

And they are twenty years old.

Yes. This is the danger of being a college professor that they never warn you of when you begin. Your students will infect you with it. It is insidious. It is Cool Envy.

You will begin your career teaching at the tender age of 28 or so. You will be the nerdy grad student who impresses your undergrad charges by quoting obscure political theorists (it’s not as sexy as you think). You still know how to dress like a kid, if you dress up at all (although I think I spent my entire year studying for comps wearing overalls). Then you’re a freshly minted PhD and you can finally focus on losing the ten pounds you put on while writing the dissertation. You get a job, you have an income. You’re still hip and cool and now have better clothes. You’re 33 or 34 and still have street cred.

You become a rockstar in the classroom. You play interesting YouTube videos in your lectures and are occasionally spotted at shows by your students. A mythology grows up around your sightings about town. Students want to follow you on Twitter.

And then…one day you ask a question that begins with something like “Okay, who here can tell me what happened in 1989 that was so monumental?” Blank stares. A timid hand. “Professor? We weren’t born until 1992 (93, 94!)” The room spins. You look around and think “Oh my God. I could be her mother.”

It’s a sobering thought. Suddenly you begin to question your fashion choices. Are you wearing that because all the girls are doing it? (But you’re not one of the “girls”!) What right have you to sport those cool boots? Those skinny jeans? To be seen at the gym wearing spandex? What did that kid actually mean by MILF?

So, I turned forty the last month and had a self-image crisis: the onset of Cool Envy. I almost threw out all of my clothes; I started flipping through a catalog full of tweed and ankle length skirts. I listened to some Joan Baez. I contemplated switching my drink of choice to white wine spritzers and going to dinners at 6:30.

Then I got a card from a former student whom I’ve always thought to be impossibly cool. “Happy birthday,” she wrote, “to the most wonderful professor turned friend I could ask for. Watching you be an impressive grown-up while still being the most enjoyable chef/wine lover/advice giver is always a pleasure…thanks for being so awesome.”

At that moment I realized my friend who had diagnosed the Cool Envy Disease had it backwards. By forty, we’ve got our acts together--we know our stuff, we are self-assured and confident. We can empathize with students while still providing guidance they respect. They envy our ability to move about the world with ease, and they envy our comfort with ourselves and our abilities. We are cool because we no longer have to work so hard at it.

Forty is hot. And forty-something professors are very, very cool indeed.

Boston, Massachusetts in the USA

Denise Horn is an Assistant Professor of International Affairs at Northeastern University and a founding member of the editorial collective at University of Venus. She is the author of Women, Civil Society and the Geopolitics of Democratization (Routledge 2010) and the forthcoming book Democratic Governance and Social Entrepreneurship: Civic Participation and the Future of Democracy (Routledge 2012).

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