During spring break, my boyfriend and I took one week of vacation and went to the Turkish Mediterranean Coast. We went on a daily boat tour with a bunch of tourists from Ukraine. Some of them were young professionals, and as the boat had not more than 15 passengers, we engaged in a chat. My boyfriend, wondering about the young post-Soviet Ukrainians who can now afford holidays abroad, asked them what their professions were. After we got the answers, of course, we were asked what we did for a living. Before we could answer one of them asked “Professors?”. You should have seen how happy he was to have found out that his guess was the right one and that he had been able to figure us out.
This event led me to go back to similar experiences in my life. Recently, I started to exercise in a new gym. Since the machines on which one exercises change slightly from gym to gym, during the first week the director assigned me a trainer to show me how to use them. As the guy was helping me understand what to do on these machines, he popped the unexpected question: “Are you an academic?”. Yes, I answered. As I was reading a book while fast walking on the treadmill, and as the gym is close to my University, I thought probably these were the reasons why he reached that conclusion. I said in a joking tone “Do I look well read?”. “Well,” he answered, “ it is in the way you talk.” He did not need to be more precise, as I already knew what I had done to make him figure out that I was an academic: I remembered how I instructed him to teach me to program the treadmill instead of just listening to what he had to say.
Although it may sound like these are coincidental events, I have to tell you that this has been happening too often to call coincidence. As early as 2006, while I was still a Ph.D candidate but already teaching as an instructor, I went into a store to try on a pair of shoes one day, and the salesperson there asked me if I were a teacher. I said yes, without specifying that I was teaching at a university and asked him “How did you know?”. He was less specific than the above examples and just uttered something about how shoe salespeople, meet hundreds of people every day and therefore learned the ways of telling one person from the other in specific ways.
It is a fact of life that our professional identities shape our habits, attitudes and behaviors and that goes without saying for almost all professions. Looking from outside, I can confidently say that the behavior of some of my friends could give away their professions easily. However, the recent two incidents made me wonder: what would give us away, those in teaching and academia?
I would say it has to be some kind of a didactic attitude first of all. No matter how inclusive and flat-hierarchical one would try to be as a professor in the classroom, still what we do is to teach and often includes normative sentences. Then maybe our speech is a little bit too sophisticated from time to time, when we use uncommon concepts or expressions. Also, we often travel with books and notebooks in our bags or in our hands. Moreover, we tend to ask questions more than the average person, since our curious brains are geared towards finding out details and we may also be very articulate with details when it comes to describing things ourselves. Oftentimes, we act very self-confidently, and we know very well how to portray self-confidence, even when we are not. I am sure the several pen marks on my hands, especially during the grading periods when I use a red pen, are good enough clues for guessing that I teach. A know-it-all approach to life could also be the basis for raising someone’s suspicions that one may be in academia.
What do you think would give you away and let people figure out your profession?
Itir is a founding member of the editorial collective at University of Venus.