The “Observer” column in the November 14, 2008 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education caught my eye. In “Cool Cred: High Theory, Daffy Duck, and the Blues,” Jim Courter (Western Illinois) takes a close look at ways in which academics self-describe:
It seems these days that accomplished writers, musicians, artists, and scholars are itching to let others know that they have arrived at their current stage in life by way of a wide variety of experiences, some of them, to use a Fieldingesque word, low : sometimes lower working class : and that they still carry with them, like a battered suitcase that bears the labels of travels to exotic places, a taste for some of those earthy pursuits.
Writers have a handy outlet for expressing their street cred by way of the Notes on Contributors pages of literary magazines. Some examples: a poet who has been a soldier, pipe-organ installer, musician, and a custodian at Alcatraz. ***
One of the most fashionable ways to display this kind of experiential and intellectual range is to profess an appreciation for blues music, the rawer, more primitive the better : Chicago-style blues and its ancestor, Delta blues from Mississippi. A taste for the blues is no doubt sincere in most cases. I share it myself. What I question is the motive of an artist or scholar who can’t resist the urge to let others know about it.
And when I read Notes on Contributors of the kind above, I get the feeling that I’m supposed to be surprised and intrigued to learn that the complex guy : I think of it as a guy thing : whose work shows evidence of an evolved sensibility has paid his dues in the coin of hard experience. He has not only arrived, but has done so with an artistic voice full of soulful graveliness that, when combined with the right dose of irony : a ponytail helps, too : has come to be a substitute for, even preferable to, gravitas.
The full article is available here (subscription site – sorry).
I tend to suspect that Courter is right that he is describing a “guy thing,” because women are still struggling to be taken seriously in their jobs. Why are our workplace ponytails immature and theirs are ironic? Because women are still trying to prove that we have a right to be in the front of the room teaching the class.